Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 11, 2011

The Anatomy of Wings (2007), by Karen Foxlee

The Anatomy of WingsThe Anatomy of WingsMy copy of this lovely book is the edition published by UQP and the cover (at left) is so much better than the overseas editions such as the Alfred Knopf (at right) or the Atlantic one (below) with their irrelevant imagery.  There is no kite-flying or trampolining in The Anatomy of Wings: this lazy kind of cover design makes me really cross and it is penny-pinching by the overseas publishers not to pay the original designer for her much more appropriate work.  The UQP design is by Sandy Cull and gogoGingko and it is just perfect: it brings together the psychology of the novel’s narrator through the girl’s posture, her grief-stricken eyes and her obsession with birds.  At the same time she faces things head-on, determined not to surrender to a bewildering world.

Jennifer Day’s big sister Beth has died, and her family isn’t coping.  Aged only ten, Jenny tries to make sense of what has happened, trying to unravel Beth’s secrets while also dealing with her parents’ and sister Danielle’s distress.  She has to confront Beth’s bad-girl reputation in a tough outback mining town, survive at school and manage her own grief as the fragile remnants of her family tear each other apart.  The trauma of all this has robbed her of her powerful singing voice and although she can’t articulate this clearly, she knows that solving the mystery of her sister’s bizarre behaviour is the key to recovering her voice – and perhaps her equilibrium – in time for the school eisteddfod.  With her bemused friend Angela who keeps a Book of Clues, she muddles around seeking answers…

This could have been a dreary, sentimental story, but Jennifer’s voice is strong, funny and perceptive.  Her naïve voice is authentic even when she confronts brutal events that make this a book for mature readers.  Her observations are acute:

The girl was Deirdre Schelbach.  She was the Queen of the Tough Girls.  She had a sweet face with soft brown skin, a little nub of a nose but it was all ruined by her yellow hair with a stripe of black roots down the centre and two or three teeth that were turning brown.  When she started shouting her words were accompanied by a very bad smell.  Deirdre wore her high-school uniform very short with her two top buttons undone.  Her skinny legs protruded from her round body.  She wore thongs instead of school shoes.  Seven thick black rubber-band bracelets adorned her left arm.  (p 91)

Those rubber-band bracelets symbolise a bond between the town’s bad-girls,  the ‘Shelleys’.  The bracelets can’t be replicated but only bestowed.  In the small society labelled ‘No-wheres-ville’ by the Townsville Twins and the Brisbane Cousins these symbols are as distinctive as female tattoos used to be.  Girls, classified as good or bad, know that wearing one of those bracelets means branding for life.

It’s a town of battlers, where almost everyone lives in lookalike houses built by the mining company, but there are social classes all the same.  Miranda, Beth’s friend, has ‘an aristocratic face but she lived in a caravan with a broken door’ (p38).  Jennifer’s mother, unaware of her family’s fate, warns Jenny about Mrs Lee as ‘an example of how lucky they were’ because Mrs Lee collects recyclable bottles for refunds and lives in ‘a half-falling down house’ (p268).  Between Jenny’s narratives there are vignettes about the neighbours in Dardanelles Court, all oddities of one sort or another, all nursing private griefs unexpressed.  Jenny knows enough about clothing to use it to classify people into insiders and outsiders too:

The neighbour’s home-schooled daughters who come to offer help wear ‘long-sleeved dresses that reached the floor’ in the same pattern as ‘Nanna’s Butterick patterns from 1974′ (p60).

The disintegration of Jenny’s ordinary family in an ordinary town is at its most devastating in the character of Mum.  Dad whose beer-belly betrays his solid drinking, leaves the discipline to her, and Jenny’s reportage of her mother’s efforts to deal with the inevitable sibling bickering and minor cruelties is as amusing as her observations of her hapless teachers.  But when Beth’s behaviour escalates, and worst of all becomes common knowledge in the town, Mum is at a loss to know how to handle this wayward daughter of hers.  Ineffectual as these parents are, their pain is palpable because they love this self-destructive daughter and will do anything to get her back on track.  They may be limited in their vision for what their kids could be, but these are not stultifying parents trying to mould their daughter into a life that doesn’t suit her; if she is rebelling against anything it is the town and its limited horizons, not her loving parents.  They are parents who can see that the girl is lost and doesn’t know what she wants and has dug herself into a hole from which there seems to be no escape.

After Beth’s death Mum stops wearing her striking lipsticks and setting her hair with curlers.  After a time she retreats to her bed and  ‘wouldn’t budge except to go to the toilet and sometimes make herself a cup of tea.  She didn’t have any showers.  She smelt like tears. (p110).  Foxlee’s depiction of grief is one of the most powerful I have read, and it is a relief when a crisis shocks her back into life and brings some reprieve.

It was good to hear Mum talking again but it was strange also because her voice didn’t sound exactly like it used to.  It reminded me of a teaspoon tapped against a teacup, it had a hollow fragile ring to it. It could break very easily.  (p235)

The Anatomy of Wings won the 2008 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book (South-East Asia/Pacific Region) Winner, the Dobbie Literary Award for a First Published Woman Writer Winner, and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award – Best Emerging Author.   In some places it seems to be classified as YA, but it would be a pity if adult readers passed it by.

Highly recommended.  I do hope that Karen Foxlee is writing another novel.

Luise Toma at MC Reviews found that the novel has a ‘captivating beauty and has a rough and poetic element that makes it truly unique’.  The review at The Guardian is rather brief.

Author: Karen Foxlee
Title: The Anatomy of Wings
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Publishing) 2007
ISBN: 9780702236983
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $24.95

Fishpond: The Anatomy of Wings (UQP edition)



  1. I might see if I can get this one at the library. It almost reminded me a little bit of Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey, although I am not sure why. Jasper Jones is also a book I think would appropriately attract the YA label but it would be a shame for adult readers to dismiss on those grounds. I think it is just the idea of how different people come to terms with a terrible death


    • HI Becky, this is a much better written book than Jasper Jones, which was too flawed by its improbabilities to work for me. But this, as a forgiving portrait of an unforgiving town captures the milieu perfectly.


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: