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The Anatomy of Wings


The Anatomy of Wings

Native Australian Karen Foxlee’s richly drawn debut novel, THE ANATOMY OF WINGS, has the unfortunate quality of having two main characters who are equally strong yet dueling to dominate the spotlight. The catch? One’s alive; one’s dead. But thankfully for readers, the more we find out about the dead one (13-year-old Beth Day), the more we understand about the one who’s left behind (Beth’s 10-year-old sister, Jennifer).

The story begins as Jenny and her best friend, Angela, are rifling through a forbidden box at the top of Jenny’s mother’s closet. Inside, they find clues to Beth’s death --- all ordinary objects yet each a key to Beth’s downturn. “There were two blue plastic hair combs. A tough girl’s black rubber-band bracelet. A newspaper advertisement for a secretarial school folded in half. A blond braid wrapped in gladwrap. A silver necklace with a half-a-broken-heart pendant. An address, written in a leftward-slanting hand, on a scrap of paper. Ballet shoes wrapped in laces.”

As the narrative unfolds, the story behind each of these objects is revealed --- the beloved braid of hair their mother chopped from Beth’s head while angrily wrestling with her on the kitchen floor; the flyer for secretarial school: a last-ditch effort to keep Beth from getting into trouble; the necklace worn by Beth and her semi-boyfriend/bed-partner Marco, the 17-year-old bad boy from across town. Watching Beth morph from responsible daughter to wild child hell-bent on doing what she wants is infuriating and depressing but realistic nonetheless.

On a basic level, Foxlee hasn’t covered much new ground here --- the story structure is a bit reminiscent of Alice Sebold’s THE LOVELY BONES --- but that won’t stop readers from identifying with Jenny. The 10-year-old’s frustration and curiosity about why her sister won’t just cooperate or “get better” is palpable on every page. And typical of any younger sibling, the love she feels for Beth and the devotion to keeping her secrets safe is counterbalanced with her guilty urge to tell the truth about what’s actually happening so that Beth can get the help she needs before it’s too late.

There are other nice touches as well. The chapters about the other people living on Beth and Jenny’s street, although potentially jarring at first, are exceptionally detailed and provide additional context to the world the girls and their parents inhabit. Jenny’s obsession with relaying facts about random things, while sometimes distracting to the story and perhaps overdone as a storytelling tactic, add depth to her character and balance out her propensity for letting her imagination get the best of her. And Nanna’s character? Well, she’s just a hoot.

THE ANATOMY OF WINGS is stuffed with all sorts of ingredients that make teenagers --- especially broody ones --- link arms in jaded unity. Drunken parties are thrown and cigarettes are smoked. Boys are slept with too early. Threats are made about running away. Exasperated parents lay down the law, but it doesn’t do any good. In short, this seems like a typical angsty novel, but somehow it’s not. While many readers will enjoy (and relate to) these elements, what they’ll come to love is Foxlee’s honesty in her refusal to wrap anything up neatly, as a few questions are left unanswered. Does Beth kill herself? What exactly did Beth do to Deirdre in the park? Could Beth be saved in the end?

We still get the feeling it’s going to take a long time for the Days to recover from their collective fallout. And that’s the way it should be.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on February 10, 2009

The Anatomy of Wings
by Karen Foxlee

  • Publication Date: February 10, 2009
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
  • ISBN-10: 0375856439
  • ISBN-13: 9780375856433