Sunday, February 9, 2014

Karen Foxlee: The Anatomy Of Wings

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014

The Anatomy Of Wings is Karen Foxlee's award winning first novel. It is my second favourite Foxlee book, to borrow one of the narrator's turns of phrase. I suspect this comes from reading the second one first. The Midnight Dress has some similar themes and characters, though that is not meant as a criticism.

Both are about girls growing up in Australian country towns. The setting of Wings is rooted in Karen's own childhood in the North Queensland mining town of Mt. Isa where suburban houses backed onto the desert. It's emblematic that a funeral opens the narrative in her fictional town of Memorial. Even the water tower, so typical of regional Oz, is a foreboding focal point.

Of course, her use of symbolism spreads from the wings of the title: Icarus, butterflies and Jenny's beloved birds, even references to the mythical phoenix.

Underlying these images is a fragility and impermanence clearly linked to the tale of loss. Jenny takes us through the events that lead up to her sister Beth's death and her quest to understand what happened. It is also a quest to get back Jenny's singing voice, with the able assistance of her friend Angela. She's both a best friend and a good friend. Beth's mate Miranda is part of the wrong crowd. Like the protagonist of The Midnight Dress, she is an itinerant moving around country towns in a caravan with her stepmother.

It's the early nineteen-eighties but Beth is a very 21st century character, a thirteen-year-old growing up too fast without real survival skills. On the surface it's the usual suspects. Sex, grog, and drugs mixed with an overdose of pubescent rebellion. But Beth's aches are deep within:
...she felt keenly the pain of insects and then the pain of people.

...she wanted to save everything but couldn't even save herself."
Today she'd be labelled with all sorts of psychological and social syndromes.

Jenny's teacher knows the real cause of Memorial's, and perhaps the modern world's, troubles:
"I believe that in the last few weeks none of you, yes, not one of you, have been taking fractions seriously at all."
Wings has two, perhaps three-tiered, narration. As Jennifer explains:
"I have pieced together with my own two hands. I made from things I saw and things I did not see but later knew. I made from the tatters of terrible things and the remnants of wonderful things."
What she saw is in first-person, with the straightforward voice of a ten-year-old, reminiscent of Scout from To Kill a MockingBird. Now that's not a unique observation but it struck me as I was reading, before encountering similar comments elsewhere. The rest is in third-person, though there is sometimes a strong element of omniscience in these accounts of what happened.

It is a world of dysfunctional adults. Beth's parents do not know how to communicate with her, much less help her. Her Nanna places her Catholic faith in the wings of angels and patron saints. Her father is the kind of laconic Aussie male who finds little solace in the grog despite his best efforts. Her mother retreats to bed, hiding from a world she has always feared:
"That's how children die," she said. "They slip and the scissors go into their brains."
The other residents of the appropriately named Dardanelles Court are an eccentric, damaged bunch: two brothers surviving their war legacies; a couple who lost a child and eye contact; an untouchable recluse. In their own ways they share Beth's sad history.

Don't be put off by the themes of this novel. As a wedge-tailed eagle circles,  this tale ends with notes of optimism, literally and figuratively. Pun intended.

Karen Foxlee has just released a children's fiction offering Ophelia and the Marvellous Boy. I look forward to her next adult novel.