This is my first review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, and can also be viewed at www.cattorresv.com
along with my other Challenge reviews.
What would life be like, how would our cities look, what would our values be, and who would we be when we have wings?
Claire Corbett masterfully addresses these questions and more in her debut novel 'When We Have Wings', published by Allen and Unwin in 2011.
The story is set sometime in the future, when bioengineering has made it possible for humans to fly. Through surgery, treatment and training, those who can afford them can have wings seamlessly made part of their bodies, with the appropriate modifications to muscles, sight and navigation skills, as well. Society is no longer merely divided into haves and have-nots; this future world distinguishes between fliers and non-fliers.
Peri is a young woman with an enigmatic background. After seeing fliers on television for the first time, her troubled life in 'rural land' as a non-flier is consumed by the dream to fly. She moves to the city and joins the household of two high-profile fliers, the Chesshyres, to become the nanny to their son, Hugo. Her unparalleled service to the Chesshyres earns Peri the right to have her own wings as well. But the sudden and mysterious death of a fellow non-flier-turned-flier nanny compels Peri to take flight (pardon the pun), with Hugo in tow.
The Chesshyres hire Zeke Fowler, a private investigator, to find Hugo and bring him back. A non-flier himself, Zeke is thrust into the amazing and shady world of fliers, which he studies not only to find Hugo, but also to learn more about the elite world that may be in store for Zeke’s own son.
The story unfolds from Peri’s and Zeke’s perspectives. The mystery of Peri's parents and identity is slowly revealed through both their eyes. A sub-plot involves a mystery in the Church of Seraphim, run by a Luddite-like Origins cult that opposes the creation of fliers and embraces the many defects that afflict humanity. The mysteries are all neatly resolved at the end of the novel, with the main plot and sub-plot emerging together as one thread. A minor plot of romance between Peri and another flier juxtaposes nicely against the bigger picture of Peri’s love for Hugo.
As one who has spent most of her sleeping hours having lucid dreams of flying, I absolutely enjoyed the world that Corbett created. Her vision of a time when humans may choose to have wings is glorious, but she has also insightfully raised the ethical issues involved in choosing to alter oneself so radically as to aspire to be angels. Are fliers evolving to be a new species? Should they be considered superior to non-fliers, set apart in their own cities in the skies? Should parents choose for their children to be fliers? These moral dilemmas are addressed squarely in the story, without too much preaching or self-righteousness.
I was impressed by the depth of Corbett’s research into how birds fly and navigate, and the different types of wind and clouds. I confess, however, that I skipped these highly technical descriptions during my first reading, and went back to them after finishing the story.
The rendering of a future world is accomplished very well, without taking over the plot and delicately told story. Zeke’s artificially intelligent car is as much a character in the book as iPhone’s Siri may eventually be in our lives.
Most of all, I really appreciate the message that merely having wings doesn’t make humans fliers; flight is a way of life. It is a culture and a philosophy. Corbett writes, “It takes more than wings to fly.” Peri’s experience with the Audax, a group of fliers striving to test the boundaries of what they can do with their wings, reminds me of that other wonderful work I love: Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
Corbett quotes scripture hundreds of times throughout the novel, from both Peri’s and Zeke’s perspectives. While the reference to the Bible makes the image of fliers as modern-day angels even more powerful, I found it quite overdone. It might have been fine if we just had Zeke quoting scripture; but having Peri constantly spouting verses from the Bible as well was too much. The spiritual and moral aspects of humans with wings were coarsely hammered to the readers this way, rather than subtly rendered in broad strokes.
I also found it jarring how the first chapter was written in present tense, while the rest of the book was in past tense. At first I thought Peri’s perspective would be told in the present tense while Zeke’s would be in the past tense, but this was not the case. The first chapter just stood out like a sore thumb. If it had been a prologue, the different tense would have made sense; but as Chapter One, it doesn’t quite work.
As a romantic, I would have liked the romance between Peri and a Raptor (military-trained fliers) fleshed out even more. The brief interlude between Zeke and a flier was also quite a distraction; the story would have worked without it, yet it could have made Zeke’s story stronger had it appeared as more than just a blip on the screen.
Overall, I enjoyed reading the book, and will most likely read it a few more times. I recommend it for all those who would like to contemplate what it would be like—and who we would be—when we have wings.