Laurel Winter, Growing Wings (2002, Firebird Books)
The first thing that struck me about this book was the beautiful cover, in rust and gold. It looks like a mix of real photograph and some digital play but it's a smooth, unified work. The pensive figure curled tight inside her wings captures both the uncomfortable feeling of growing up different and the hint of the fantastic. The girl on the cover is lovely, but no angel.
The second thing that struck me was that I opened the cover and the story began. No title page. No copyright page. And yet there are a handful of blank pages at the back, and the pages themselves are in a fair-sized if unpretty text, with a great deal of space, proving that this was not a decision made to simply prevent the need for another signature.
This also proves apt; the story leaps into motion at an unusually fast pace, and keeps up in that manner throughout. We hardly see Linnet as she is before she starts growing her wings; the moment she is introduced is the moment her life changes. This seems an odd choice, as writers are told time and again that for a transformation to be effective, we have to see the character before they transform. However, in days of books bogged down in detail, the rapid leap into action is refreshing, like a slap of cold water. And more, the transformation is not an instant process. It takes the rest of the book before Linnet really finishes the process begun on the first page, when her mother Sarah touches her shoulderblades, feels the lumps, and tells her daughter she's going to grow wings. Acceptance of this fact is hardly easy; Sarah's own mother cut her daughter's wings off in terror and confusion. Sarah, though she vows never to do the same to her own child, ends up taking actions that hurt Linnet almost as much.
There's no explanation given for why Linnet or Sarah grew wings or why any of the other winged characters in the story did. There are hints, guesses, but no facts. It is not important where the wings came from, only that they are there and that they are as painful as they are joyful. The facets of aerodynamics, and that the heavy human body is not designed to fly, are the main facts tethering this story down to reality. Any of the difficulties of achieving flight only deepen the metaphor. Some of the wings will be too small to use no matter what effort the character makes, some have been twisted by horrific past and only a handful of individuals come close to being able to fly without help.
Nor does the story end with a solution, a final outcome. It ends when Linnet makes her choice about what wings mean to her, about what she will do to face a world where she is as freakish as she is magical. Linnet's future, it is hinted to us, will be full of trials and complications, some perhaps as life-changing as this story. But this story, this choice, is the root and start for that future, and the rest is left to the imagination. And rightly so. The story feels more real, more like a true life, by being left open.
The same technique is used with each of the characters. There's a crowd of them, too many for most stories this brief; yet they all have a life, and habits, and routines, established long before Linnet meets them. You can feel the little details of their lives creep into the story, fleshing them out, hinting at depths, and history both light and dark. Yet, for all we see only a fraction of each person's life, they feel the more real for having a life outside Linnet's view.
There are no villains in this book. There are people who harm or endanger other people but each of them pretends to have a reason for doing what they do. Well-meaning choices hurt, and willful disobedience sometimes brings better results than anyone could have guessed. The only real antagonist is the simple fear of the world, of what the world will think, of what scientists will do, of how the media will swarm.
The prose is stark, plain, and very simple; deceptively so. The first half of the first chapter is clunky and artificial, trying too hard to get the whole back story out too fast. But once that back story is told, the story settles in and sails through on the right notes of anxiety, elation, realisation and even the moments of sheer teenage tantrum. The world changes in simple sentences; poetry would make the story artificial. This is no angel. This is a girl, frightened enough to wrap herself in the comfort of her own feathers, yet brave enough to stand in the open air.