Being, and feeling, double the age of the author, I wonder if I’m qualified to review this book. Novels weren’t like this in my day. Where’s the plot? Where’s the character development? Where are the descriptive passages? At least it has chapters – eight of them, but all sub-divided into short sections, some little more than half a page, some in italics, some in a different font, some with bold headings like “The Deep and Sad Consequences of the Short Term Word Syndrome.” What’s going on?
But something about Learning To Fly kept me intrigued. It touches on a remarkable range of themes: child abuse, virginity, death, suicide, the generation gap between parents and teenagers – all of which are handled with surprising maturity for such a young writer. It is well written, in a fresh and original style, and funny, but at the same time intense and highly emotional.
This is an experimental novel, and like all experiments, sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s just a bit too obscure, a bit too self-consciously unorthodox. But the overall effect is strikingly memorable, the characters stay with you long after you finish the final page.
The narrative is fragmented, shifting between different time frames and perspectives with few conventional signs to anchor the reader. It includes diary entries (including some written “on one of the notes pages”), letters written to abstract recipients (“Dear Dreary Dark …”), secret conversations with Mind Elves and other imaginary figures known as Conversationalist L, X, etc.
Frequent snippets of dialogue read like movie clips, unencumbered by conventional markers such as “Kala said”, but brought alive by arresting alternatives: “Kala mentally bit nails,” or “Eyebrows on their toes expressively”.
The style of writing is idiosyncratic. Mostly short, uncomplicated sentences. Frequently without a verb. Short punchy verbless sentences, often repeated for extra punch: “Bubbles of hurt. Bubbles of hurt and depression. Bubbles of hurt and depression. And love. Bubbles of hurt, depression and love …”
Shehani loves to play on words. A word like estrangement takes on a life of its own. Significant words and expressions are capitalised: Castle of Perfection, Short Term Word Syndrome, Feelings, … Phrases become crushed into single words: Asifitdidntmatter, Ifthemovieweretobe, Bubbleshurt, … All of which carry a host of associations in the context of the novel. Scarcely a page goes by without a strikingly original image enriching the text:
… Congratulations! And sarcasm mounted right onto the peak and stuck a flag.
… “Why?” she asked gently. Very gently, as if talking to a hungry little bread thief.
… “I know.” Quiet, rusty, aged tone that carried heavy barrels of iron.
Feelings (with a capital F) pervade the novel like characters in their own right:
… And little Armies of Shame marched by respectfully with bowed heads.
… And Jealousy woke up with a start with thin beads of perspiration on its nose.
… All of Kala’s Senses bit nails and perspired nervously. And blamed Kala for locking them out.
Different characters slip in and out of the pages, frequently unnamed, so that at first the reader has to concentrate to keep track of who’s who. But the fact that the four central characters emerge so strongly from the pages is a tribute to the sharpness with which they are drawn. And one of the things that makes them so memorable is the way the author gets into their minds and evokes their innermost thoughts.
The central character Kala appears at different stages of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. At first her preoccupations are mundane: clothes, periods, sex. At 14 she develops a crush on “the elocution class boy”; days when they exchange more than 13 words are known as “Better Elocution Class Days”. Central to her character are her relationships with her blind sister Nirmaleen (“You’re luckier without eyes. It’s easy to feel sorry for you”), her best friend Sumi, and Dylan. Kala’s troubled relationship with Dylan is revealed in a series of dialogues, brought alive by quirky touches: “Anything wron-gh?” — “Nothing’s wron-ghhh.” Their conversations are trivial and nicely observed; they avoid the big issues more often than they confront them:
“Can I ask a question?”
“What’s new about that?”
“No. This one’s awkward.”
“Uh. All your questions are pretty much that.”
“No. This one’s awkward.”
“What could be really awkward for you Kala? Anyway you ask so many awkward questions.”
“No. This one’s awkward.”
“All right. But it’s a bit awkward.” …
Dylan’s father died when he was six, of a “hartertak”. The story is told in poignant detail from the child’s eye view, from being picked up early from school by his aunty, to the Marie and Nice biscuits served at the “fune-rle”, and seeing his father’s body in the “kuffin”. He starts to spend his time shredding paper: “Paper shredding broke the world into bits and gave him control.”
His mother remarries but he can never come to terms with “Father-II”. And he becomes obsessed with a movie in which an idealised father and son build a tree house together. He decides to build such a tree house and to make such a movie himself. And the failure of the enterprise, summed up in the phrase “Ifthemovieweretobe”, becomes a metaphor for his sense of loss.
Kala’s childhood friend Sumi is recalled mainly in snippets of dialogue titled “Rituals with Sumi” – touching, witty, poignant. Her sudden death, which Kala witnesses, becomes known by the euphemism SNAP. After the funeral, Kala fends off callers who don’t know whether to be matter-of-fact (“How’s school stuff?”) or sympathetic (“It must have been awful!”), with various excuses. (“There’s a rat in my room I think.”) Caller 31 is Dylan:
“I hope you don’t think I’m sympathising.”
“What are you doing then?”
“Being your friend.”
“Thank you. We’ll do this being my friend thing some other time.”
Nadia is Kala’s rival for Dylan’s affections – attractive, flirtatious, unstable. She lives in an imaginary world where she builds castles of perfection and defends them from the inexorable onslaught of the feelings she tries to deny. Her death is preceded by a scene in the pre-school where she works:
“Bye! Kiss for me?”
Last kiss from Nadia going to a child, all lovers forgotten. Later he would talk about the tragedy of his pre-school teacher and tell everyone how he kissed her moments before she killed herself.
Four deaths and four funerals in one slim volume is perhaps overdoing it slightly. But the tragedy is handled sensitively and with a light touch which never allows it to become melodramatic or overly sentimental.
Commenting at the launch that all her friends read the novel looking for themselves in the characters, Shehani commented “it’s all of you”. Considering she was only 19 when she wrote this book, it is a remarkable effort. Her English teacher at St. Bridget’s, who spoke at the launch of the book and the Gratiaen judges who shortlisted it, should be congratulated for spotting a talented young writer with real potential.
Published in The Sunday Leader, 7 June 2009.