Feb 12, 2012

Book Review–When We Have Wings by Claire Corbett

whenWhen We have Wings is Claire Corbett’s debut novel, though from page one the reader is in no doubt that Corbett is a practised and skilled writer. 
It’s rare as a reviewer that I get surprised by a work, when you read a lot of quality fiction your expectations are high.  When We have Wings enchanted me as I was reading it and had me deep in thought when I wasn’t.

The Tale
When We have Wings is set in a near future Australia1 where sea levels have risen and our tampering with genetics has altered not only our own biology but that of many of the life forms surrounding us.  Picking your child’s features is commonplace; the cutting edge of genetic manipulation is the creation of humans with wings.

The dark underside to these genetic wonders are superbugs, ultra virulent strains of mosquito born diseases and super weeds that clog any land not repeatedly cleared.

Society limps on, the gap between rich and poor ever widening, encapsulated most eloquently in a piece of graffiti viewed by one of our protagonists:
In dripping gold letters three metres high ran the words: if GOD wanted you to FLY, he’d have made you RICH.
The story is told from two perspectives: First, Peri a poor girl made good, a wet nurse and surrogate mother for a pair of rich flyers;  her payment is her wings.  Second, Zeke an ex-cop turned private eye agonising over the choice to let his ex-wife turn their son into a flier. 

Peri absconds with the child she is caring for and Zeke is hired to track her down.  What looks like a straightforward case takes Zeke and the reader further into the mysterious and seedy world of flier culture and politics.  While with Peri the reader is treated to an unravelling of a personal mystery and the wonders and possibilities of flight.

Only reading can do this book justice
No short block of text is going to adequately impress on you the scope of this novel.  So rich did I find the world building, so convincing and multi-layered did I find Corbett’s vision that it seems a pity to let it rest at one novel.

Corbett could have just hand waived some of the explanations associated with human wing powered flight, but she didn’t.  Without giving us too “crunchy” or technical an explanation she makes flight seem probable rather than possible.  I’d go further - so evocative was her prose that I could almost feel the experience of flight.

Corbett could have hand waived some of the changes to culture and society brought on by the creation of human fliers but she didn’t and the reader is treated to a a world that has depth and verisimilitude.  If there’s a way flying humans would change our society she’s outlined it, from architecture to the way crime would change.

She’s also used her experience working for government departments to give us a sometimes depressingly realistic vision of  future bureaucracy and the services that would spring up around a self centred culture.
‘Is this one of those child hotels?’ I’d said as we pulled up to the seedy highrise, with its billboard slick outside that made it look like a resort, complete with palm-fringed pool. From newborns to 12 years old, the sign said: 24 hour care; weekly rates. Special needs catered for. Separate dormitories for boys and girls. We give them the best holiday so you can have the best holiday. ‘Never seen one of these before.’
‘Jack and Jill?’ said Henryk. ‘Hope that doesn’t reflect their standard of care.
This book got under my skin and awoke in me that rare experience in fiction where for a second, magic or the imagined becomes tantalisingly real.  I caught my self day dreaming, watching clouds and believing.

Don’t let this slip under the Specfic radar
My fear with When We have Wings, is that many with in the Speculative Fiction community won’t read it simply because it won’t register on their radar.  At Booktopia it’s listed as contemporary fiction, its cover says “literature”. 

This is a book that quite comfortably sits in the realm of speculative fiction, I would hope it gets nominated for an Aurealis; it should be nominated for a Campbell if not a Hugo award.
Don’t let this one slip under your radar.

This book was provided to me at no coast by Allen & Unwin.

1. It’s never actually stated as the location, but the language and culture indicates that it is.  Imagine a fusion of Sydney and the slums of Mumbai

awwc2012This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012.  Please check out this page for more great writing from Australian women.

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