Karen Foxlee’s is a voice of confident originality. She was named Best Emerging Author in the 2006 Queensland Premier’s Awards and The Anatomy of Wings shows that the judges spotted a winner.
Despite having enough hooks and lures to make you want to turn pages, the story is essentially character driven and what delightful characters Foxlee coaxes from her pen.
There’s the three sisters:-
Beth is at first an enigmatic mystery who eventually epitomises the small-town girl slipstreaming into the vortex of a troubled few before taking a couple of wrong turns and spiralling into the abyss.
Danielle has a Milwaukee back brace for her curvature of the spine and a desperate wish for a perm.
Jenny is our young narrator who, in retrospect is able to tell us more than her own perspective and who in the ‘here and now’ is a vibrant original voice with a highly sensitive eye.
The best supporting role must go to Nanna who drives a Datsun Sunny and lives in a demountable council flat filled with dusty Virgin Mary statuettes. Nanna is filled with love and religion and believes in miracles.
The girls’ mother and father are also finely drawn. But – to continue my theme – there are so many interesting cameos that I can’t resist mentioning some of the support cast:-
Cousin Kylie, with her “brittle bones and bucked teeth and a bad temper” and a “very small amount of retarded-ness”.
Mr and Mrs O’Malley who talk incessantly (Mrs) or sing (Mr) while trying to avoid the pain in each others’ eyes.
Trail-bike-riding mysterious bad-boy Marcus with his thick lustrous black hair and come-to-bed eyes (we all knew one).
The Shelleys, so-called because “two had the first name Michelle and one was Rochelle and the leader, Deidre, had the last name Schelbach” (89)
The structure of The Anatomy of Wings is unusual: there are no chapter names or numbers, apart from those that deal specifically with the inhabitants of the five houses within Dardanelles Court (the sisters live in number 4) but they do not flow chronologically as one might expect.
The prose flows effortlessly (in the way that some writers manage to meticulously craft perfect sentences so that they appear to have come from nowhere).
Consider the way Foxlee handles a storm.
Here’s the storm’s distant approach:- “It came out of the west, tentatively, like a lady gathering up her skirts before stepping inside a doorway.” Its imminence is announced thus: “Every flower, every branch, every leaf, every twig opened up its heart and waited. The classroom filled with this scent of the dry earth waiting.” Finally, the storm arrives with an explosion of thunder and deafening rain. “Above us the wind was playing the roof like a wobble board” . And then “the storm took a deep breath and blew open a row of louvres at the back of the classroom”. (249-252)
Finally it was over, leaving a different place than what had been there just hours before.
When we walked home the whole world had changed. Small rain tiptoed on roof-tops. A hawk hovered surveying the damage. The clouds had drifted away. Water rushed out of downpipes in fountains. Everywhere raindrops sparkled. (252)
After I completed my review, I checked out some other perspectives on Goodreads, where I discovered some readers were nonplussed about the references to Beth seeing angels. I didn’t feel this confusion myself but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I ‘got it’ as the author intended.
Some people believe that as one gets closer to death, ‘angels’ are visible and I think the girls’ grandmother believed Beth had somehow straddled the boundary of heaven and earth when she fainted. I took the continued references to be analogous: family members and friends could see Beth drifting away, could sense and smell and feel the spectre of loss about her.
In life, there are people who seem to carry an aura of early death with them and when they die, it comes as less of a surprise to friends and loved ones: it’s as though the death has been foreseen and is therefore not unexpected. Likewise, in the novel, Beth carries this aura of angels and death as some sort of preparation for her end.
In a subliminal way, the angels fit nicely with Jenny’s love of birds and with the wings she so meticulously draws in art class.
Of all the wings on the wall the wind chose mine to tear free. For a brief and beautiful moment my yellow wings were released from their pin and floated upwards into the room. The whole class held its breath. They flapped three times, gained altitude on the updraught, hovered briefly and then fell to the floor. (252)
When I read that passage, Beth and her angels were at the forefront of my thoughts.
Karen Foxlee featured recently in the ANZLitlovers Meet an Aussie Author series, in which the author confesses to a penchant for therapeutic photocopying.
Foxlee, Karen. The Anatomy of Wings, UPQ, 2007.