The Airways is the fifth work of fiction from Jennifer Mills, whose last novel, Dyschronia, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. An ambitious novel of contradictions, it’s a cerebral meditation on gender, power, entitlement and consent that viscerally inhabits the body.

Its central conceit – that consciousness leaves the body as particles at death, parasitically occupying unknowing hosts – is speculative. But its settings of contemporary Sydney and Beijing are recognisably real.

The Airways has three narrative threads. The first follows Yun, who is killed while walking home in the opening chapter: as Yun’s particles inhabit a series of bodies, they reflect on their disconnect from their body when alive. The second is Yun’s ex-housemate Adam, who lives in Beijing; we follow his groggy reflections after he “picks up something on the subway”. The third, and liveliest, is Yun and Adam’s share-house in the days leading up to Yun’s death, which sketches an uneasy dynamic born of Adam’s compulsive habit of entering Yun’s room to watch them sleep.

This is a very interior novel, mostly unfolding inside the heads of its distant, ferociously observant narrators, both of them peripheral outsiders. Entitled Adam consistently misreads signals and situations, often wilfully. He repeatedly tells himself, in a tone even he doesn’t seem to believe, that he is a “good guy” and has “done nothing wrong”.

Our glimpses of Yun’s life are rare, though we learn they were sent to Australia from Beijing as a child when their difference became obvious, and that others’ reactions to them have resulted in a wary vigilance. Perhaps because the narrators are deliberately opaque even to themselves, this is a novel that holds the reader at a distance.

The Airways explores what it is to inhabit a body, in both a physical and a social sense. What kind of visibility, vulnerability and social power do different bodies confer? Yun, who was alienated from their body in life, discovers a pure physical connection to the bodies of their hosts, suggesting perhaps that it was the social constraints of their own body that they recoiled from. Analogies are drawn between bodies and cities as organic hosts for human lives, particularly the rapidly evolving Beijing.

This is a novel that is, on balance, more concerned with systemic patterns or meditations on its themes than in the specifics of character, or in burrowing deep into the lives it charts. When it does cover this territory, it’s frequently excellent. Adam’s awkward inability to connect with those around him and his tenacious, unfounded belief in his own goodness are brilliantly drawn in scenes with his Sydney housemates, or his Chinese friends/employers. And his socially illiterate reflections on the morally compromised behaviour that pushes others away are scalpel-sharp. “He had gone three nights without going to their room. But there was no way to reveal his restraint, to have it commended. There would only be judgement.”

But these elements are proportionally overwhelmed by sequences of Adam remotely observing anonymous Beijing crowds, or the detailed disquiet of his inhabited body. And Yun’s perspective is mostly composed of their inhabitation of anonymous bodies, which accumulates to tell a story about what it is to be human, but only hints at what it is (or was) to be Yun.

Jennifer Mills is an exceptional craftsperson, and there is much in this novel to admire. The city of Beijing and the speculative conceit she’s created are vividly realised, with complexity and nuance. However, it requires close concentration to navigate the flood of remotely observed detail to reach those shining details that reveal its characters.

The Airways, by Jennifer Mills, was published in July by Pan Macmillan Australia. 

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.