Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2021

The Airways, by Jennifer Mills

The Airways is a book that rewards patience and some re-reading.  The reward is that the novel triggers some very interesting ideas.

This is the blurb:

I had a body once before. I didn’t always love it. I knew the skin as my limit, and there were times I longed to leave it.

I knew better than to wish for this.

This is the story of Yun. It’s the story of Adam.
Two young people. A familiar chase.

But this is not a love story.
It’s a story of revenge, transformation, survival.

Feel something, the body commands. Feel this.
But it’s a phantom . . . I go untouched.

They want their body back.

Who are we, if we lose hold of the body?
What might we become?

The Airways shifts between Sydney and Beijing, unsettling the boundaries of gender and power, consent and rage, self and other, and even life and death.

It’s only fair to warn you, however, that in the beginning, I could not make sense of it.  I read two chapters at bedtime, put it aside and read something less challenging, and started again in the morning.  Trusting this author whose work I’ve admired since I read Gone in 2011, I just kept reading and slowly the dual narratives came together to form an intriguing whole.

I hesitate to declare Adam the central character even though the narrative about his physical and mental states in Sydney and Beijing is central to the story.  That’s because another narrative that runs alongside Adam’s, features a presence in pursuit of him.  They are certainly not a ‘character’. This presence is too corporeal to be called a ghost, too diffused to be nameable, and too nonspecific to have a gendered pronoun or one that’s singular or plural. The reader learns that we do not need to know this but that we cannot assume that they are or were a non-binary human or even living or dead.

This presence moves among the people who cross their paths, entering strangers’ bodies in various ways and gradually learning to master them in some ways, at the very least making them feel uneasy or dizzy without knowing why.  Are they benign?  It seems not.  Some kind of vengeance is in play.

The sequences in Beijing are superbly claustrophobic.  The air pollution we hear about is pervasive: it clings to skin and eyes and throat and airways and there is no escape from it.  Adam’s physical vulnerability is exacerbated by his inability to learn even rudimentary Chinese; it makes him dependent on others.  But the narrative reveals how he has been able to get away with avoiding what is, after all, a matter of personal responsibility in a foreign country, by leaving it to his bilingual girlfriend to translate for him, and to negotiate his needs.  He remains an expat, aloof from daily life, learning nothing about the local culture, attending occasional networking events without taking any part in them.  He has no friends at all and has only a fragmentary relationship with his mother at home in Sydney.

As the pages turn, suspicion forms.  Adam has done something wrong, but what? What was he running away from?  Is his unease, his haunted psychological state, his bodily confusion and his social ineptness a consequence of guilt?  He assures himself that he is a ‘good man’ but does he protest too much?  Is he the perpetrator of a terrible crime? Or is he just incapable of recognising what he’s done?

It’s not possible to share my response to the conclusion without spoiling the discovery for others.  Let’s just say that for adventurous book-groups, the discussion will be fascinating.

Author: Jennifer Mills
Title: The Airways
Publisher: Picador (pan Macmillan) 2021
ISBN: 9781760980504, pbk., 370 pages
Source: review copy courtesy of Picador


  1. I’m glad to see this review. I was sent a copy of this but was a bit unsure. I’m quite intrigued now.


  2. This does sound an interesting book group read. 🤠🐧🎈


    • *chuckle*
      I’m torn between not wanting to be annoyingly enigmatic and giving away spoilers, but Pam, but because I know your retirement activities from your blog, I think you especially would find the premise of this book *extremely* interesting.
      And when, one day, I get to Tassie and we get to chat f2f in a coffee shop, I’m going to ask you what you think about it!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’ll be lucky if I remember it by then. I’m not reading a lot at the moment as I only have one working eye. It is a work in progress. Hope eye surgeon can remedy it or I’ll be having a guide dog reading to me. (That’s a joke). I focus on my Fullers and Audible books and the unread ones at home. So don’t hold your breath. Hahahah


        • Oh, that’s terrible. I hope they can do something…


  3. I bought 3 new books at Benns yesterday, before I knew about the lockdown, and I forgot about this one. It sounds intriguing. I enjoyed her last.


    • LOL the book you forgot to buy is always the book that’s a reason to go back and buy some more!
      Which ones did you buy?


  4. This sounds really intriguing, may be also a bit unsettling.


    • Yes, I’d say it’s meant to be.
      I think it’s meant to make us think about seemingly innocuous things we do, that can have a lasting negative effect on others.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am tempted, Lisa. And thank you, for the mail I received today. I am looking forward to ‘Homecoming’ and ‘None of us Alone’. What a timely surprise!


    • I’m glad it got there safely, I added None of Us Alone because I suspect you’ll enjoy those poems:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, Lisa. I haven’t read it. I don’t think I’m tempted. What can I say? Commenting’s a tough gig sometimes. I’m glad experimental/non-linear works still find publishers. If it builds up a presence I might be forced to give it a try.


    • Actually, I had thought this could be one that would really interest you…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This sounds really interesting Lisa and hadn’t been on my radar before.


    • It’s only just been released, and unfortunately for the author, her proposed publicity tour has faltered due to covid restrictions…

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sounds fascinating Lisa – I love a book which pushes the boundaries and this certainly does sound like one that does!


  9. Hmm… this doesn’t actually sound like my thing. Is it dystopian?


    • Um… I’m not sure exactly what it is. It defies labels.


      • I borrowed her previous novel from
        the library but didn’t get on with it and returned it only having read about 50 pages.


        • Dyschronia? I didn’t like that one as much as Gone, but I like this one more.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, that’s the one. It had a beautiful cover with an octopus (?) on it.

            Liked by 1 person

  10. […] 40 of them are Speculative Fiction and of those, with the exception of Jennifer Mills’ recent The Airways, none are, as Terri-Anne would have it, particularly ground-breaking or innovative books. […]


  11. […] Jennifer Mills’ The airways: (Fiona Wright); “subtle and fierce” (Geordie Williamson) (Lisa’s review) […]


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