The Anatomy of Wings

The Anatomy of Wings

3.1 14
by Karen Foxlee

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Ten-year-old Jennifer Day lives in a small mining town full of secrets. Trying to make sense of the sudden death of her teenage sister, Beth, she looks to the adult world around her for answers.

As she recounts the final months of Beth’s life, Jennifer sifts through the lies and the truth, but what she finds are mysteries, miracles, and more questions. Was

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Ten-year-old Jennifer Day lives in a small mining town full of secrets. Trying to make sense of the sudden death of her teenage sister, Beth, she looks to the adult world around her for answers.

As she recounts the final months of Beth’s life, Jennifer sifts through the lies and the truth, but what she finds are mysteries, miracles, and more questions. Was Beth’s death an accident? Why couldn’t Jennifer—or anyone else—save her?

Through Jennifer’s eyes, we see one girl’s failure to cross the threshold into adulthood as her family slowly falls apart.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Set in the author's native Australia in the early 1980s, this sensitive debut novel weaves and bobs between two time frames as the narrator, Jennifer, tries to understand the death of her older sister, 14-year-old Beth, who fell from a water tower. In the prevailing view, Beth was wild: she had sex with strangers and fell asleep, drunk, in neighbors' yards. But the girls' grandmother believes that Beth once saw an angel and had a bit of grace in her ever since, and that her acts were her attempts to save people. Jennifer sees evidence of both, remembering that "the more [Beth] glowed, the wilder she got." Trying to understand Beth's decline and to cope with her own grief, which has deprived her of her singing voice, Jennifer searches for clues in a box of Beth's belongings. Tangents may confuse; at times, the litany of small details and anecdotes burden the plot. But the metaphors embedded in the story and the luscious prose ( a teacher's eyes are "a flat gray-green and impenetrable as a crocodile's") will hold readers until the moving conclusion. Ages 14-up. (Feb.)

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School Library Journal
Gr 10 Up–This complex novel explores the fragility of innocence and the existence of miracles in everyday life. Jenny, a prepubescent girl in an Australian mining town, retraces the last year of her teenage sister’s life in an effort to understand what appeared to be Beth’s descent into moral degradation but was perhaps actually her acceptance of martyrdom after seeing an angel. Told through Jenny’s naive and trusting voice, the narrative is nonetheless rich and languid, with the natural world awash in similes, the manmade world brimming with specific-pop culture references of 1980s Australia, and metaphors on nearly every page–of birds, fairies, winged insects, or angels. While Jenny’s voice evokes characters in classic preteen literature–Lois Lowry’s A Summer to Die (Houghton, 1977) and Katharine Paterson’s Jacob Have I Loved (HarperCollins, 1980) come to mind–there is a truly adult sensibility to this story, especially in the brutality of the sexual situations in which Beth becomes involved, that recommends it to sophisticated readers. This is an unusually literary book that some readers will find deeply meaningful and beautiful, while others will roll their eyes at the preponderance of metaphorical imagery.–Rhona Campbell, Washington, DC Public Library
Kirkus Reviews
Foxlee's debut novel (published in Australia in 2007) seeks answers to a sister's meaningless downfall and death on the cusp of adulthood. Narrated by an adult Jenny channeling her ten-year-old self, the novel arcs from her older sister's funeral back through the preceding year in their small Australian mining town and ends with the eventual, hope-filled beginnings of healing. Jenny's exploration is partially about Beth's life (sexual awakening, drinking, cigarettes) and partially her own search for her singing voice which has disappeared, clearly in response to the fracturing of her family. Whether Beth truly saw angels or thought sex would mend broken men remains unclear; Jenny's perspective means she fills in the blanks of her sister's life, as anyone must after a loss. Elegant, evocative writing set this apart from the rash of recent and forthcoming dead-sibling stories, but the young narrator, unfamiliar Australian terms and seemingly unnecessary recent-past setting (1983) will make this a hard sell to nearly any teen reader-although adult readers will rejoice in its elegiac beauty. (Historical fiction. 14 & up)
From the Publisher
Starred Review, Booklist, January 1 & 15th, 2009:
“[A] shining debut . . . Foxlee captures the small ways that humans reveal themselves, the mysterious intensity of female adolescence, and the surreal quiet of a grieving house, which slowly and with astonishing resilience fills again with sound and music.”

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Product Details

Random House Children's Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 3.80(d)
Age Range:
14 - 17 Years

Read an Excerpt

Years later when I go to the dry river everything is less than in my memories. The riverbed is narrower, there are fewer ghost gum trees. I remember an entire stand behind the sand track, or this is how it seemed. They were evenly spaced, each giant with its own territory of solitude. I remember the quiet. How there was only the sound of our footsteps on the fallen leaves, our voices in the stillness.

Now many of the trees are gone, fallen or cut down. There are more paddocks instead, the beginning of a new housing estate.

I walk in circles unable to find the place at first but our tree is still there.
When at last I find it I am surprised at the smallness of the marks we left. I kneel and run my fingers over our carved letters. All this time and the tree has kept them for us. It could have easily healed itself. The cuts were not deep. They were made only with children's hands.

Certain things were placed in the box. We were not supposed to touch them. No one said it but we felt it. It was the way our mother held the box to her chest as she walked along the hallway, protectively, as though it was a baby. She hid it from us in clear view.

Angela and I removed it from the top shelf of the linen closet. The door creaked. In the weeping house the only sound was our breathing in the silence that followed. Already, in the few weeks, a light layer of dust had settled over its lid.

It was Angela's idea. She said we needed to look inside to find my singing voice. It would help me to remember exactly when and how it happened that the words lodged in my chest quite close to my heart.

You'll never get it back unless you know why it went away, she said. She was full of ideas.

It was a simple blue cardboard box. I thought it would be heavy. I thought the weight of it would make my arms shake but it was light. The writing on the lid said in flowing white script carnegie elegant glassware. In blue ink in the right-hand corner was one more word. Darling.

My sister Danielle was sleeping when we entered the room. She was facing us with her knees drawn up. In those weeks all anyone did was sleep. Our house was like Sleeping Beauty's palace after the enchanted spell is cast. People slept on beds and on sofas. They closed their eyes in chairs with cups of sweetened tea in their hands. Mum slept with pills that Aunty Cheryl counted out into her hand and guided to her mouth. Dad slept on the floor between us with one arm slung across his eyes.
Angela and I sat on my bed with the box between us. She looked at Danielle sleeping and then at me, asking me with her eyes if it was all right. I shrugged. I didn't know what my mother would do if she found us with the box. I didn't know if she would sense it had been opened and leap from her bed and come running to find us. I didn't know what it would contain.

When I opened the lid the smell of fifty-cent-sized raindrops hitting dry earth escaped.

Angela opened her mouth into an O.

Up rose the scent of green-apple shampoo. Of river stones once the flood has gone. The taste of winter sky laced with sulfur fumes. A kiss beneath a white-hearted tree. A hot still day holding its breath.
We removed the contents one by one.

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.

From the box came the sound of bicycle tires humming on hot pavement. Of bare feet running through crackling grass. Of frantic fingers unstitching an embroidered flower. Of paper wings rising on a sudden wind. Of the lake breathing against the shore.

I didn't say anything. I kept very still. Danielle turned on her bed but kept sleeping.
"Somewhere in here," whispered Angela, "is the answer."

On the day of the funeral my nanna let the cat out of the bag about an angel and caused a great ruckus and then left squealing the tires on her beige Datsun Sunny. Even before that Kylie went ballistic and punched one of the Townsville twins on the nose. My singing voice disappeared long before then though the words to songs still ached inside my chest. I could feel them in my stomach and taste them in my mouth but they wouldn't come.

After the funeral the house was full of the rustling of black chiffon and the smell of Cedel hair spray holding up stiff French rolls and already wilting roses dropping petals onto the shag rug. The visitors pressed themselves against the living room walls and tried to drink their tea without clinking their cups and saucers. They used up all the air-conditioner coolness and sweated around their necks. Men undid their ties. Women pressed handkerchiefs to their foreheads. They used up all the oxygen. I could feel my lips turning blue.

Our mother was laid out on the sofa as still as a statue and surrounded by aunts. Her only movement was to occasionally blink her see-through blue eyes. Her long eyelashes hit her tearstained cheeks and caused a faint and momentary breeze.
In the middle of the room the nest of tables had been spread apart from smallest to largest like a set of stairs. On the lowest were jam drops with smooth skin and jelly eyes. The middle held a round unsliced tea cake. On the top step there was a host of fairy cakes, still-winged, standing on each other's shoulders.

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Meet the Author

First-time novelist Karen Foxlee perfectly captures the essence of growing up in a small town and the complexities and absurdities of family life.

Karen Foxlee lives in Gympie, Australia. The Anatomy of Wings is her first novel.

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