One of the eeriest things about The Airways is how differently it must read now, in the middle of a global pandemic, than when it was first conceived in 2015. There’s a scene early on, where one of the novel’s protagonists, Adam, is on a crowded train in Beijing, and a man near him “hoick[s] wet phlegm” in the back of his throat. Adam wonders “how long it would take for a person to come into contact with every other person in the city” and “exchange” their viruses and spores. “It would be easy for an epidemic to spread”, he concludes. Adam has a long history of illness anxiety, a constant, background awareness of the small aberrations in his body. And he does “pick something up,” as he puts it, on the train that day – although it is far from the kind of contagion that he suspects.
Adam is ostensibly in Beijing for work – having taught English for a year, he now has a vague, marketing-related job in a company that “delivers bespoke global brand solutions” and is run and staffed almost entirely by foreigners and a handful of “international class” locals. His girlfriend Natasha is one of these locals, and she has recently left him after an unnamed transgression – without her he has few connections here, and no real friends.
Beijing’s “forgetful air,” though, its habits of transformation and “quick erasure” are a comfort to him – because what has really brought him to the city is a desire to forget and start afresh, to leave behind his memories of the violent death of his university housemate, and the culpability that haunts him still.
It is Yun, this housemate, who is the real protagonist of The Airways, whose narration and perspective open the novel, and whose grief and rage and “hunger” – this is their recurring term – drive its narrative. Yun’s death, late at night and barely “two hundred steps” from their front door, is the very first scene presented to the reader. It is at once shocking in its suddenness and elegiac, almost beautiful in its portrayal: Yun remembers the minute sensations, the “extravagance” of their body, in the final moments that they inhabit it.
What Yun becomes, afterwards, the form from which they narrate, is something nebulous: an air, a breath, a vital energy. They become something almost like qi, the flowing life force that is integral to Chinese conceptions of the body and its physical operations. This liminality, and sense of the mysterious or otherworldly, is one of the striking features of much of Mills’s work, and it lends The Airways a similar kind of slipperiness and thrall to her previous novel, Dyschronia, which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin in 2018.
After Yun’s death, their consciousness, or presence, is airborne: they move from body to body with coughs, sneezes, laughter, sighs. It’s not quite possession, as Yun is unable, at first at least, to exert any force of will over their hosts; rather, theirs is a kind of shared occupation. They sit within each body, with a fresh awareness of all of its energies and sensations: from the dull ache of a blister to the coiled restlessness of a teenage boy, to pricklings of desire, cherished bruisings, cricked necks, racing hearts and floodings of relief. All of these bodies are interconnected, and another of those small uncanny features of The Airways is the way in which this heightens the book’s interest in bodily vulnerability and porousness, how close we always stand to injury and even death.
Mills’s detailing of physical sensations, the complex “gifts” of embodiment is expansive and wonderfully imaginative, and it is full of empathy and joy. These sections of the book are remarkably life-affirming, all the more so for being presented to the reader by someone who is dead. Yun moves through these bodies driven by grief and by fury, in order to pursue Adam, although even they are unsure to what end.
Mills slowly reveals the details of the days and weeks before Yun’s death in a parallel, past-tense storyline that vividly and beautifully captures the sensuousness of a Sydney summer (“frangipanis strewn across the asphalt, the scent of wild fruit rotting in people’s tiny front gardens, that sky”) and pays similarly close attention to controlling the reader’s perceptions of Adam. Adam believes himself to be “a good man” and yet is instantly defensive when a conversation starts up in the kitchen about male violence – even though it begins because a woman from the nearby university has been murdered.
He believes he sees a connection and an understanding between himself and Yun, despite Yun’s obvious efforts to keep their distance from him. Adam cannot see that his inability to respect boundaries and privacy is a form of violence in and of itself because his is a body, unlike Yun’s, that has never “become complicated” (as Yun puts it), subject to gazes and forces that want to constrain them, control them, possess them or do them harm.
There’s so much in The Airways that is fascinating and arresting, especially because Mills refuses to simplify or smooth out complex issues and perspectives. The shifts in Adam’s consciousness, his growing confusion and disorientation are subtly and intricately traced; so too are the exquisitely awkward moments of irony and clarity provided to the reader intermittently.
There are times where the pace of the book suffers as a result of this intricacy, especially given how many elements of the thriller are also at work within it, but it is nonetheless a deeply empathic and vivacious book, and one that revels in the “consciousness of the body” and how it feels to be alive.
• The Airways by Jennifer Mills is out now through Picador