The Airways, Jennifer Mills

First published in Newtown Review of Books

Someone recently tweeted that if we gave male violence the same attention as Covid, men would have been under curfew for ever. Published in 2021, this prescient novel deals with both themes, taking the sickness inhabiting the world as an extended metaphor. Though the book’s few time-markers place it in separate periods in the millenium’s teens, the before times, both the virus and the impact of male predation are woven throughout as real and malevolent presences.

Adam has moved from Sydney to Beijing where he is working in some ill-defined marketing role helping ‘deliver bespoke global brand solutions’. The office is in a modern building designed with exposed bricks and pipes to lend it that start-up feel. He is brought down by a mystery illness and leaves work to go home, where he sickens rapidly. Mills draws out every sense. He hallucinates, his body sweats, itches, he is weak with nausea, diarrhoea. The symptoms shriek with recognition: he loses his sense of taste, he can’t breathe. He closed his eyes. The virus, infection, whatever is was, was moving around inside him, waiting for him to fall asleep. The passages where he continues to interact with his colleagues, people in the street, in shops, are overlaid with pandemic tension. Stop!

Alternating chapters mark an earlier timeline where Adam is sharing a house in Sydney with some other students, including Yun (who is studying virology). Adam is drawn to Yun but his interest is not reciprocated. These chapters are heavy with tension. A woman, a fellow student, has been murdered in a nearby street, and a vigil is held for her. 

The Airways opens not with this murder, but with a different violent death, a death which releases the anima who narrates half the book: the ‘they’ whom we follow, who journeys through cities, through new bodies, looking for the one it wants to inhabit. It is a slow stalking.

These chapters are named for sensation – Heat, Hunger – and also for emission, or transmission: Smoke, Steam, River. The airways are breath, life, and ‘they’ are seeking a new body, expelled from their own. As they move into new bodies, trying them out for size, making a home for a while, they learn, become more awake.

The transitions are becoming easier, even if control remains beyond them. They flip through bodies like pages, looking for lines they recognise, that leap of meaning.

Again, in Covid-times, it is impossible not to see a parallel with a virus adapting. Mutating. Cells have an intelligence in The Airways, behaving like sentient beings as they watch a division, ask what changes it brings, even argue with each other.

Adam’s girlfriend, Natasha, has left. He tells people she’s visiting her family for the weekend, but we gradually learn of an invasive video he has posted of her. This is not his only transgression. Adam has his own trauma, unexamined, but it is his ordinariness that jars. In a recurring pattern, he comes face to face with different people who try to move around him, but they collide, bump. He is a man who cannot, or will not, read the signs. He is awkward, carrying a clear sense of inadequacy, and entitlement: ‘He should have gone with them’ quickly becomes ‘They should have asked him to come.’

Male entitlement manifests in other scenes. An unnamed man leans over a counter:

… looks plainly at the tops of her breasts. Want in his groin … Sinking lower, trying to escape his skin and enter hers. When she reacts, frowning, sitting back, he gets a shot of pleasure.

This is a hugely original exploration of the banality of violence, its unremarkable perpetrators—and its hold on those violated, both living and dead. ‘So many people are like this,’ says Mills’ narrator, ‘carrying around their private violence, their body’s understanding with the world.’

Reading, rereading, and untangling The Airways’ strange pursuit is a deeply rewarding journey.

Jennifer Mills The Airways Picador 2021 PB 384pp $32.99

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