The Airways by Jennifer Mills
Jennifer Mills is well known for experimenting with various writing styles, challenging the perceived boundaries and constructs of the novel. In a 2018 review for the Australian Book Review, James Bradley wrote: ‘[Mills’] work has rapidly grown spikier and less easy to categorise, gathering in elements of the surreal and the science fictional as its ambition has increased’. I can report that this continues to be true. Her new novel, The Airways, is possibly her most ambitious to date.
The Airways alternates between Sydney and Beijing as it slowly unfurls the story of Adam, of Yun and of ‘the body’. Traumas from Adam’s past have awakened deep within him after a distressing incident in Beijing and, as a result, he becomes increasingly unsure of his ability to maintain control of his body, his memories or his thoughts in this new world he has created for himself to escape his past. There is deep exploration and thought in this novel where so much feels permeable and porous, a probing of the boundaries of all things: gender, rage, power, consent, transformation. Mills explores the myriad ways in which others alter us (physically and metaphysically), and how we in turn affect those around us and the places we inhabit and pass through. Ultimately, we are asked the question: who are we if we lose hold of the body? What might we become? How might we continue to inhabit the world? Can justice still be sought and obtained for those who seek it?
Within seconds of beginning The Airways I became acutely aware of my body in a way I haven’t been since I trained as a classical ballerina: my heart rate, my breath, the twitching in my calf muscle, the pulse of blood behind my crossed knee. The prose is steeped in evocative descriptions of the body and its inner mechanics, thoughts and feelings. The Airways is a bold literary offering for patient readers and fans of Jeanette Winterson and Deborah Levy, those who prefer their fiction to contemplate societal constructs, the reliability of perception and one’s own unique sense of self.