Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I wonder if Kathleen Jennings, growing to adulthood among the scrublands of rural Australia ever wondered, as a child, what influence her environment was having on her. Her novella breathes the atmosphere of the bush. Just as she describes, I have felt its call, heard the birds waking at dawn and seen the sleepy possums making for shelter and a day-long sleep. I have felt the bush as night fell and experienced a sense of stillness and mystery as the darkness grew dense. What Kathleen Jennings describes is an accurate record, but more than a record, for she adds foreboding and mystery to produce a novella of intense interest.

It is not only with her sense of the gothic that she transforms the bush. She supplies a narrative that is believable. A small run-down country town is the setting in which a girl named Bettina grows to womanhood, cared for solely by a mother whose insistence on her daughter practising the niceties of a bygone era, and whose open contempt for her neighbours, angers the townspeople. The woman’s husband and two sons had long left home. At age nineteen, Bettina, with the help of two former friends, discovers her world is not as she had always believed.

Being a pseudo-Gothic novel means elements of scary stuff. Creatures sighted momentarily and then gone, trees and shrubs that move in a breeze when there is none, sounds that happen but are not traceable, until common legend has it that the bush is haunted. Bettina learns a lot about her town and district from ’friends’, Trish and Gary. That people respond with contempt if treated as lesser quality, that friends try to help when no need of help is recognised, that friends will forgive when new knowledge removes blinkers worn without the owner’s realisation, and sometimes those closest are often not as they seem…these are aspects of human behaviour generally but, in Flyaway, they become manifest into Bettina’s life directly.

This is a book that can sweep one away with its beauty but devastate with its ugliness. The beauty of the Australian bush and its unexpected perils are a fitting subject for the gloriousness of Jennings’s writing. For example,

The fur shifted on its back like grass in the wind.

There was nowhere to run…trees piled paper-dry onto the horizons. But ahead ought to be Sylvie Spicer’s house. Besides, in those nearer trees Linda might find a handy branch.

She fitted her foot carefully into the track. A long, low vibration started in the creature’s throat…

After a long, whispering silence, the low vibration began again, a note that climbed steadily into a high keening (33).

A limited number of prose forms are used to effect – alliteration is the most evident, but there are also impossible things that become possible, an excellent example being the ‘whispering silence’. In the context of this tale, the description becomes perfectly reasonable.

Much could still be written about this novella. One would be a determined, predatory critic who would downplay the qualities of this short book. Added to its value as a piece of high quality, literary fiction are the author-drawn illustrations that adorn the cover and add most comfortably and sensitively to the story.

A wonderful piece of writing.

Flyaway

(2020)

By Kathleen Jennings

Picador/PanMacmillan

ISBN: 978-1-76098-053-5

$24.99; 192 pp

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