July 28, 2021

Books

Body and soul: ‘The Airways’

By Bec Kavanagh
Fusing elements of crime fiction and ghost stories, Jennifer Mills’ latest novel is an interrogation of gender, power and consent

Jennifer Mills’ fourth novel, The Airways, is an intelligent and poetic probing of the tenuous boundaries of flesh and the self, and a test of the limits of fiction.

Adam, a middle-of-the-road white cis male character, grapples with his expectations and desires as he grows increasingly anxious about navigating a post #MeToo world that seemingly rejects him at every turn. Alternating between his life in Sydney and Beijing, Adam’s story is fractured by Yun’s narrative, which unfolds in the liminal space between death and the afterlife. Yun is Adam’s housemate in Sydney, and the story chronicles Adam’s obsession with them. When Yun is murdered and discovers that they can move between the bodies of other people, they become consumed by revenge and possession.

This is not a crime narrative, or a ghost story, although the novel takes some elements from both genres. There is no resolution around Yun’s murder: that fact is just another statistic, one that finds an echo in the book’s mention of the women killed in recent years and the public outpourings of grief and fury that followed. The story is something else – a poetics of the body, and the way we expect it to hold definitions around gender, safety and identity. By taking Yun’s body away, Mills asks questions about who we are without our flesh, and how fragile our boundaries are.

Mills has said that she is interested in the role of the novelist in addressing the big moral and ethical questions of our time. Her previous novel – Dyschronia, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin Award – explored the climate crisis and themes of deep time. The Airways is not her first experiment with representing consciousness in fiction, and Mills is known for her highly ambitious, destabilising writing style:

I remember landing in myself. Choosing myself. By then I was settled. I possessed myself. I knew how to speak. There were still times I thought that I wanted to leave my body. Release myself into the airways. There were times when I thought I was safe.

Mills plays with reality and perception, and the dissociative effects that trauma can have. Adam and Yun fluctuate between states of being and states of becoming. They are both the possessor and the possessed, although Mills makes a subtle distinction between them via their motivations: Adam’s gaze is made more sinister by the way he is culturally afforded the role of the hunter, while Yun’s is the hungry vengeful obsession of the once-hunted. Yun’s journey into new bodies is conceptually fascinating and, read as individual pieces, those passages are beautifully, viscerally rendered. Mills observes the body and its processes with intensity as Yun begins to understand and exert control over the bodies they find themselves in. It is rare to find a novel so adept at diving into the breath, flesh and capillaries as this. Yun finds the flaws in each body, and pushes to understand them:

They find the flaw that lives in him. The blood knows it and is drawn there. A packet of cells the size of the pellet of lint he takes from his pocket when he counts his coins. He lets the pellet fall onto the cement. The one in his intestine won’t be dislodged so easily. The smoke floods him.

In some ways these moments are a delight to read – it is fiction being pushed into the crevices of flesh to expose the faultlines. And yet within the greater narrative Yun’s passages occasionally prevent the story from gaining momentum, holding the reader back from the more familiar, linear movement of Adam’s scenes. Perhaps this is a deliberate decision made to force the reader into moments of reflection and occasional discomfort, to keep them in the same grey areas that Adam and Yun inhabit throughout the work. To have readers sit with questions of body and flesh, of safety and self. If so, it succeeds, but it may fail to satisfy readers wanting to be carried along on the wave of the narrative.

Adam constantly affirms to himself that he has done nothing wrong, that he is being misjudged. His insistent repetition of this phrase is a sickening echo of the #NotAllMen brigade, who refuse to acknowledge the pandemic of male violence, and the spectrum of entitlement and possession that have led to it. Childishly stubborn in his refusal to see himself on this spectrum, Adam does not acknowledge the feelings of those around him. He is not a likeable character, and this is reinforced by the way his housemates and workmates relate to him, and by the surreal sickness that possesses him over the course of the novel.

The Airways is a challenging, ambitious read, with moments of both quiet contemplation and furious provocation. And while the novel’s ambition at times weighs down the narrative, it is no doubt a book that will do as it intends: ignite conversations about gender, power and consent.

Bec Kavanagh

Bec Kavanagh is a writer, literary critic and academic. Her research explores representation of female bodies in literature, and she is the schools manager at the Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.

@beckavanagh

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