Modern fairy tale novella inspired by rural Australia
It has been a bit of a topsy turvy year, and I’ve noticed that one thing that hasn’t been as regular lately as in years gone past is book clubs. However, after the second half of last year grinding to a halt due to new and emerging COVID-19 variants, my fantasy book club finally managed to meet to discuss a book in February.
“Flyaway” by Kathleen Jennings is a modern fairy tale novella set in rural district in Australia called Inglewell. There are several plotlines interwoven together with interludes of different background stories and tales about the region, but the main story is about a young woman called Bettina who lives with her mother in a town called Runagate. Bettina’s mother is very concerned about keeping up appearances, and Bettina does as she is told: looking after the garden, dressing appropriately and avoiding undesirable neighbours. However, when a young man called Gary accuses her of being a coward, and she receives a mysterious note, Bettina decides to disobey her mother and try to find her missing brothers and learn what happened to their father.
For a short book, this is a surprisingly complex and intricate story with many layers. Jennings is a writer of considerable subtlety, and many seemingly innocuous events or characters become incredibly significant later on in the story. I really loved some of the little side stories, and my favourites were Linda’s Story: Turncoat and Gwenda’s Story: The School in the Wilderness. They really added to the overall plot while giving the reader interesting background information, and while getting the balance right can be challenging, I think Jennings struck a good balance. Jennings also did something that I haven’t seen many white fantasy authors in Australia do: she did an acknowledgement of country in the acknowledgements section of the book and recommended some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors that readers may also wish to read. I think settlers writing fantasy based in Australia will always be a bit fraught, but acknowledging traditional stories and knowledge in some way seems like a really good step.
However, there were points at which where I thought the stories did get a little tangled. We spent a long time at book club discussing this book not because of how much we liked it or the themes that it engaged, but because we all found it challenging to determine exactly what happened in the book. I felt like the two scenes that were the most obfuscating were when ‘Jack’ goes to help Uncle Davy retrieve some bottles, and the final showdown at the end. I have gone back several times to puzzle out what happened and while I think that Jennings should be commended for her cleverness, you don’t want to be so clever as to be confusing.
A short book with surprising depth and enjoyable worldbuilding; Inglewell definitely leaves the reader with a lingering sense of unease.
If you follow my blog, you may have seen my post about my new reading challenge: the Short Stack Reading Challenge to read as many short books in December as you can. I knew exactly what I wanted my first book to be. I have been reading this author’s books for years and years, and when I saw that she had an illustrated collection of fairy tales, I had to have it. When the edition arrived, I was amazed at how beautiful the book was in person. The gold foil on the hardcover is stunning and it came with a lovely illustrated card with black silhouettes with gold detailing.
“Mother Thorn and Other Tales of Courage and Kindness” by Juliet Marillier and illustrated by Kathleen Jennings is a collection of four original fairy tales. The Witching Well, inspired by a Scottish version of the Frog Prince story, is about a young woman called Lara whose difficult mother requires water from a special well to bake bread with. One day after the long journey there, Lara finds the well dry and must make a bargain with a talking frog. Mother Thorn is an original fairy tale set in medieval Ireland about the dogs and the loves of our lives. Pea Soup is a retelling of The Princess and the Pea with a more modern and cosy perspective. Copper, Silver, Gold is a reinterpretation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Tinder Box about military trauma and the three magic dogs.
Marillier’s work is the ultimate in comfort reading and this book is infused with warmth. Despite visiting some familiar territory in Mother Thorn, Marillier proves again that she is a flexible author who works comfortable in a variety of settings and lengths. The Witching Well was an incredibly sweet story that was tempered with a realistic exploration of managing a relationship strained by anxiety and control. I really liked how in Mother Thorn, things don’t go to plan, but Niamh finds happiness through the different stages of her life. In Pea Soup, Marillier shares the perspective between two characters and highlights a less traditional but no less vaild form of masculinity. Copper, Silver, Gold was probably the most heart-breaking of the stories. Unlike many stories that focus on the ‘glory’ of war, this story instead grapples with the aftermath and the work and support people need to heal.
This was a lovely little collection, as beautiful on the outside as it is on the inside, and I enjoyed it from start to finish.