Allen & Unwin (2011)
Reviewed by Tehani Wessely
This book is a very interesting case from a marketing point of view – from what I’ve seen, it’s been marketed as neither science fiction nor young adult, and yet in could easily fit into both categories. Instead, the publisher seems to have been promoting it as a literary novel, which I can also see sense in, but given the content of some of the books I’ve seen shoved into the YA pigeonhole in recent years, I have to say I am a bit surprised they haven’t targeted that market. Still, I believe the book is selling well under their current marketing, so who is to complain!
When We Have Wings is an accomplished debut novel for Canadian-born Australian writer Claire Corbett. Sweeping in vision and scope, the story bounces between two very different points of view, that of cynical but solid private investigator Zeke Fowler, and a young nanny, Peri, who had risen to heights she could not have dreamed of from her humble beginnings, and then thrown it all away. Zeke is hired by Peri’s employers, high flyers (in all senses of the phrase!) the Chesshyres, when Peri apparently kidnaps their young son, and disappears with him into the wilderness.
The dual narrative shows both Zeke’s search for Peri, and the things he finds out about flier society along the way (which have a personal impact for him), and Peri’s journey to discover more about herself and the world she is now part of.
Part of what makes the story compelling is Peri’s role as carer for the baby Hugo – her love and concern for the child is believable and beautiful, even as she struggles with her desire to learn more about herself and her abilities, and grapples with her need to escape the flier world she has been thrust into. She refuses to abandon Hugo, even though her escape would be easier without him, and this love drives much of the narrative.
I thought Zeke’s story was perhaps the more interesting one though – the adult, living in a world he did not grow up in, trying to cope with the fact that his son could be, and may need to be, basically a different species to himself, if he wants to give him the best possible chance at a good life. While somewhat of a metaphor for any parent raising children in today’s technology-rich world, Zeke’s journey as a father is one of the more emotional aspects of the book, and I found it wholly convincing.
When We Have Wings is not perfect. I’m never a fan of overly young protagonists put in a situation of the kind Peri is – for me, if the story can be told with a slightly older character, I really don’t see the reason for making her that young, particularly as she rarely, if ever, behaves in a way that would make me believe that was actually her age. Additionally, I felt the book was somewhat overlong, and some events were unnecessary to the successful conclusion of the story being told.
Having said that, I think there were elements that Corbett got so right – the advancement of technology, and how that impacts on society as a whole, was spot on, an extrapolation to a not-too-distant future rooting exactly where we are today. And the writing itself is almost entirely wonderful – Corbett has a beautiful style and I would definitely read more from her.
In all, I would recommend When We Have Wings to lovers of science fiction, to literary fiction fans, and to readers looking to stretch their boundaries. It’s not a short book, but it’s worth the effort.