A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher. I can’t promise that this didn’t affect my feelings about it, but a book is a book is a book, however I acquire it, and I can promise that all opinions are my own.
This was frigging awesome. I honestly don’t know where to start. I don’t want to give anything away because I loved every surprise and would hate to take that from another reader. At the same time, I want to tell you everything because this book kind of blew my mind.
Let’s start with a question: When you love someone, do you love them for the ways in which they are the same as you? Or the ways in which they are different?
Some things I can tell you: Jem and Isley met on Qita and now live within the Protectorate on Earth, working together at the Skyward Inn. Human and Qitan respectively, they love each other, although their relationship is not a physical one. At the Inn they serve Jarrowbrew, a Qitan drink akin to alcohol that appears to make memories more vivid. We see Qita first through Jem’s memories. A strangely quiet planet with calm, mild weather, that Jem was able to explore while posting Coalition propaganda leaflets. Her relationship with Isley appears to be one of opposites attracting, because where Isley is as quiet and calm as his home planet Jem is the usual bundle of doubts and confusions that we humans seem characterised by.
Question: how do we belong?
As Whiteley delicately fills in the blanks in the picture, we come to see the small, rural corner of the world in which Jem and Isley have settled. The Protectorate is an enclosed area of Britain that has rejected technological advance after some sort of ecological crisis. It is not entirely cut off from the Coalition with which it trades for those items and services it cannot provide itself, such as medical treatments, but there are high walls to mark its boundaries. Within these walls it is made up of smaller communities in which everyone knows everyone else and tolerates each other’s peculiarities. Isley is accepted, but there is a feeling that this acceptance would not stretch very far – there is talk of ‘burnings’ in another place within the Protectorate which, while vague, conjure a sense of the fine balance between insider and outsider.
The other character who drives the story is Fosse. He is like Jem in that he is sensitive and emotional, and something of an oddity. They have a kind of voluntary loneliness in common and are both outsiders even while they are part of their community. The first part of Fosse’s story moves the book from its beautifully meditative beginning into darker and more threatening territory and while I was hooked by Whiteley’s writing from the start, it was not until Fosse’s story really got going that I was unable to put the book down. Am I being intentionally vague here? Yes, yes I am. We discover so much through Fosse’s experience that the slightest thing could give away the rest of this haunting novel.
Question: do you want to be understood?
There is a quality to this book that I’ve been trying to grasp since I read it. It has something of a conundrum or thought experiment about it. Every single relationship in this book is a frustrating, confusing, complicated affair. Jem and Isley, Fosse and Dominic, Jem and Dominic, Jem and Fosse, Fosse and the guide, Earth and Qita. Nobody ever quite sees things as the other does. And yet it’s that very quality that makes it compelling reading, (arguably, misunderstanding is at the heart of most stories). The choice that each person faces in Skyward Inn (and I can’t tell you what that is either, sorry) made me think that, while being perfectly loved and understood sounds like a dream come true, surely there is an argument to be made for not understanding. We are inventive because of our need to bridge the gaps between each other. Every creative endeavour is an attempt to communicate – books, architecture, poetry, music, film, sculpture – we’re always trying to say something. We strive for understanding. But complete understanding would erase individuality. It would remove the need for creativity.
So, I’ve managed to tell you nothing about the book so far, except, perhaps, that I really, really enjoyed it. What else can I give you to go on? In my humble opinion, it’s beautifully written. Whiteley’s prose is both lovely and moody and she can create tension with just a few well-chosen words. This was a short book that felt much bigger on the inside. It was also weird and wonderful, creepy and thoughtful, maybe just a touch melancholy, and absolutely the best kind of puzzle. It’s a book I’m already longing to reread, because I feel that there will be things to grasp the second time round, and the third, that I missed at first.
I wouldn’t have heard of Aliya Whiteley if I hadn’t read Tammy’s review for The Loosening Skin a couple of years ago which sounded so wonderfully weird that I immediately scribbled the title down, but then failed to do anything about finding a copy. I am really pleased to have been given a second chance to discover Whiteley because if Skyward Inn is anything to go by, she is absolutely my kind of author. Right now I am feeling a ton of gratitude both towards Tammy for putting this author on my radar initially and to Hanna at Rebellion Publishing for sending me an ARC for this title. If good vibes could be felt these two fabulous people wouldn’t be able to stand for all the vibes I’m sending them. (Lockdown appears to have made me mushy).