Jennifer Mills’ fifth book, The Airways, is the story of Adam and Yun, whose non-chronological narratives swirl around each other like spiral galaxies locked in orbit. Both protagonists are foreign objects lodged in the body of the world, suffocating from the inside out. Amid dreamlike disorientation, the story takes on a discernible shape as the characters lose theirs. Curiosity and echoes of violence drive this novel forward. The reader is a formless voyeur, along for the ride, but never in control.
Modern-day Sydney and hyperreal Beijing breathe beneath the paper masks of Mills’ bustling pages. Sensation and metaphor conjure a living reality in which the claustrophobia of subway travel can feel as lonely as death, or as unsettling as an unanswered question. Throughout much of the book, discomfort seeps through a third-person boundary to wedge itself in the reader’s chest, testament to the author’s ability to control her audience. Mills’ skilful writing is disturbing in its execution, rooted firmly in the physicality of her characters’ worlds.
Stunning prose carries the reader past points where the plot meanders. It is likely that, upon a second reading, these slow-paced passages hold multiple meanings. Mills’ macabre version of thermodynamics prods at the kinds of wounds that leave people vulnerable in ways they never expected. As with the inhalation of smog, spores, or bacteria, so much of life is comprised of causal chains people might never observe, and yet, can be irrevocably impacted by; a timely reminder that none of us are closed systems.
The Airways is a literary puzzle intent on solving itself. If you feel disoriented reading this book, don’t fight your confusion. Surrender to the journey, like a passenger on a train. Revel in the thinning of reality’s membrane. Readers who persist through the ambiguity of the first few chapters will be rewarded with the obscene physicality of what is, essentially, a unique metaphysical take on the haunted house genre.
Mills’ book is intelligent, memorable, and worth a second read. It’s slow paced to start with, but satisfying to finish. This book will resonate with those who know what it is to feel alienated, dislocated, or intruded upon.
By Jennifer Mills
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Release Date: 27 July 2021