“Winged,” by April Kelly

Review by Donna Meredith

The strong voice speaking from the pages of Winged, by April Kelly, immediately captures both interest and sympathy. The first paragraph lays out the dilemma—eighteen-year-old Allison just gave birth to a child with what her doctor labels as “a congenital anomaly” on her shoulder blades which should be removed, but the mother believes the bumps are wings. 

Allison is a retrospective narrator, looking back on her experiences from a distance. The technique allows the author to condense events at will and end chapters with cliffhangers that keep the reader turning pages breathlessly. Slowly the author reveals secrets: the dysfunctional family Allison was raised in, the truth about Allison’s pregnancy, the way she tries to control her world with mental mathematic gymnastics, and the reason Allison is telling her story now.

When Allison became pregnant, her parents threw her out of the house and thrust her uneducated and alone into the world. Determined to give her child a good life, she waits tables, babysits, and gets her GED. She marries Charlie Evans, a kind, stable man raising a son after his wife’s death. They add another child of their own to their family and attempt to give Allison’s daughter Angel a normal life. Allison sees her daughter as an ordinary girl who just happens to have wings that grow larger as she matures.

But from infancy, Angel is fascinated by her wings, believing first she is a fairy, then a dinosaur. After Angel discards these illusions, Allison thinks her daughter has moved past this obsession with flying. In time she realizes she has underestimated Angel’s determination to explore her own strengths and develop her full potential—no matter what it costs.

The public reacts in various ways to Angel’s wings, some rooting for her to fly, others seeing an abomination in the girl’s feathered appendages. In particular, a fundamentalist preacher, J. William Harper, denounces Angel on national television. His vitriol sets up the compelling climax that destroys the Evans family.

While in one sense, the novel is a retelling of the Icarus myth, it becomes much more. The story focuses our attention on the bloodlust of modern TV viewers, how we can sit and watch Jack Ruby kill Lee Harvey Oswald right in front of our eyes, how we can view people in the World Trade Center jumping to their deaths over and over again. The narrator claims “shame and humility are slow to kick in” as we sit in the safety of our living rooms, removed from the horror thrust upon family members subjected to the repeated images of their loved ones’ deaths.

Insights of the main characters into human nature enrich the novel. Both Allison and Angel find that others care “not what you are but what you appear to be” and that “people see what they want to see.” Reality is less important to others than their own flawed perception.

The last section of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Angel’s boyfriend Jack, who reveals the extent of Angel’s obsession with flying. It is Jack who brings a measure of healing to what’s left of the Evans family. He affirms for us that love is always worth the risk of loss and pain. He presents Angel’s message to the world: “seek and cherish the partner who gives you wings to lift you up, to let you fly.” This part of the story feels a bit anti-climatic as it works too hard to tie up loose ends.

One joy in reading any work is learning something new, and Winged doesn’t disappoint. The author delivers well-researched details on feathers and flight that enrich the story.

The magical realism in Winged is reminiscent of a short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings.” In both Marquez’s story and Kelly’s, society has difficulty accepting one who is different. Some are angered by the stranger. Many will pay money to see the freak, who is, for a short time, a celebrity.

Winged seizes the imagination because of its unusual premise, but it wins our hearts because it is, after all, a love story. The story of our need to search for our perfect “other.” The bond between siblings. And, above all, the boundless love of a mother for her child.

It’s also the story of the universal need to pursue passions and dreams, often at high cost.

April Kelly has been nominated for Emmy awards for both writing and producing. She was a writer on the show Mork & Mindy. She also wrote and produced Love, Sidney, the first prime-time comedy featuring an openly gay lead character. She co-created Boy Meets World, which ran on ABC from 1993 to 2000, and was co-executive producer for the first season. She wrote for the TV series Becker and Happy Days, and wrote and produced 9 To 5, Teachers Only, and Webster. This is Kelly’s first novel. She lives in Tennessee with her two dogs.

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