In 1989, I was an eighteen-year-old hopeful writer. I kept a black-and-red notebook for storing ideas, character sketches and exotic and/or multisyllabic words. My literary pretensions led me to perform such rituals as reading a page of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood every night, as if I could somehow absorb its greatness through contact. During this period I was forever trying to read books that were culty, obscure and important, but, if I’m honest, not a lot was getting through the gate. I think now that what was missing was heart — I had no connection to those books; I couldn’t relate to them. Ulysses, Milk Wood and the others were just so much word salad.
Although I considered myself well past the age of young adult fiction, somehow I found my way to Came Back to Show You I Could Fly by Robin Klein. I was familiar with Klein’s oeuvre. Her books, published at regular intervals throughout the 1980s, had marked, even guided, my adolescence. Like Erica Yurken in Hating Alison Ashley, I could be stroppy and jealous; like Julia in Laurie Loved Me Best, I was sometimes deluded and desperate. Unlike Frances in People Might Hear You, I was spared life in a cult, but I understood the stultification of church halls, the sad fact of stale Marie biscuits, and the feeling that my beautiful future was taking way too long to arrive.
Came Back to Show You I Could Fly might have been a gift, or I might have nicked it off someone else’s shelves, or borrowed it from the library. Maybe I bought it because the girl on the cover looked like Meg Ryan, or maybe my discovery came later when it was adapted into a sweet, quirky film by Richard Lowenstein.
The point is, when I read it, I fell right in. All the bells rang. I realised that with the right book you don’t have to try for absorption. It just happens.
‘We all have our crosses to bear, every one of us. You can’t start too early in life to learn what’s in store and people make a big mistake thinking everything should be fun.’
So says Thelma, temporary host to eleven-year-old Seymour Kerley. Timid Seymour has been posted at Thelma’s in the inner city while his parents negotiate (or fail to negotiate) custody of him. Seymour knows he has no place at Thelma’s. He suspects he has no place anywhere. He is accustomed to things being temporary and he dreams of one day having a room of his own that he can fill with desirable objects—‘cheerful bedspreads, desks with maps painted on them, carved teak chests’.
It’s the flagging end of school holidays and he’s under strict instructions not to leave the house, but he does, and it is on a botched excursion into the mean streets that Seymour comes across the magnetic Angie, a twenty-year-old op-shop queen living in a backyard bungalow (‘completely self-contained’). Though opposite personality types—Seymour rarely speaks and Angie has no filter—the pair form a fast and fragile friendship. Angie invites Seymour into her world, a magical melange of shopping sprees, dream-house-hunting, public singing, race days and bus rides to mysterious hospitals. She is a fabulous fabulist, a grunge Holly Golightly, and Seymour is smitten.
Anyone who wore satin and silver lace and black nail polish, anyone who had a little flying horse tattooed on one shoulder, could reach heights undreamed of by other people.
In Angie’s company, Seymour’s life expands. Doors that had been closed are opened—but the problem of open doors is that everything else flies in. Came Back to Show You I Could Fly is written from Seymour’s viewpoint, but additional text within the narrative helps to fill in the gaps of Angie’s story. Notes from Angie’s mother to her daughter’s old friend; notes from Angie to her doctor and to her boyfriend; lists and hopeful job applications gradually reveal that despite Angie’s confident exterior, she’s in a troubled state:
In savings a/c $11.50
In Jas’s a/c? (Musn’t touch!)
Dole cheque due Tuesday
Sickness benefit? Wangle it somehow?
The nuances of Angie’s situation are drawn carefully and respectfully. We can’t fail to see Angie’s humanity and, by extension, the humanity of all society’s outliers. The story, which starts off as buddy comedy, then looks like it might be moving into a championing-the-underdog type of story becomes a real and vivid exploration of what it means to be young and powerless.
Came Back to Show You I Could Fly was awarded both the CBCA Book of the Year and the Human Rights Award for Literature. The metaphor of flight and maybe- impossible dreams pervades the novel: it’s in the title, and Angie’s tattoo, and the pilot’s badge Seymour saves for her. These lines near the end of the novel sum up for me what everyone has to learn in the passage from child to adult:
There would never be any winged horses plunging splendidly from the sky to land at your feet and carry you away from things not to be borne. That was something you had to learn to do all by yourself.
I think of Robin Klein’s novels as literary hymns to the nowhereness of adolescence. Seymour and Angie attempt to form a country of two, but the real world intrudes again and again. Other people matter and no one action exists without consequence.
I don’t know where my copy of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood ended up, but Came Back to Show You I Could Fly has travelled with me for all these years. I’m so happy see it in print again to be cherished by a new generation of readers. I find myself returning to it, not just for nostalgia but for inspiration at times when my own narratives are stuck or overcooked—when I’ve lost sight of what a coming-of-age novel should be.
Klein reminds me that drama can be stealthy, that characters can be bigger than their stories, that they can live off the page and in your imagination, and you can love them and hope the world will be sweet to them.
This is the introduction to the new Text Classics edition of Robin Klein’s Came Back To Show You I Could Fly.