Saturday, 27 February 2016

Review: Fly In Fly Out by Georgina Penney

4 stars

Georgina Penney's Fly In Fly Out (previously titled Unforgettable You) was a solid romance, made extraordinary by its nuanced portrayal of Australia and her dichotomies: rural and urban, old and new, good and bad. It's set in Perth and the Margaret River region, as well as on an oil rig off the coast of Mauritania, where the heroine works as an engineer.

Yes, you read that right: the heroine, Jo, is an engineer. She's a FIFO; someone who flies in and out of their job in mining, petroleum extraction or another insanely profitable natural resources industry. But Jo's migratory lifestyle means that her sister and her best friend, Scott, are left to look after her cat. When Scott's cousin Stephen needs a place to live, Jo's empty apartment seems like a good idea.

Stephen and Jo knew each other as children, and Stephen still feels bad about something that happened when they were teenagers, something that caused Jo to leave their hometown in the Margaret River and move to Perth. He's keen to make amends, and he feels like looking after her apartment is the way to go about it. After a rough start, they settle into a tenant-landlord relationship, which grows into something more. But, even then, Stephen's attempts to delve into their shared past are rebuffed.

Whereas normally we have the closed-off hero, and the coaxing heroine, here it is the other way around. Jo is emotionally closed off, having learnt the hard way to keep her problems to herself. Stephen, on the other hand, is so scarred by this defining incident of their youth that he is hesitant when it comes to women, careful not to push too hard. This made him a really interesting hero, just as Jo's down-to-earth nature made for great heroine material. All of the characters, right down to Jo's cat, Boomba, are well-rendered.

Without wanting to give to much away, the characters came together in a particularly nuanced portrayal of Australia's problem with alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Old attitudes of "don't talk about it" are contrasted with new, more open understandings. In a similar way, the old, rural Australia acts as a foil for the new Australia, where disposable incomes have risen on the back of the mining boom.

In Fly In Fly Out, Penney brought to life one aspect of new Australia I've never known much about: the mysterious world of oil rigs. Until now, my only point of reference has been that line from Cold Chisel's Khe Sanh: "I held a job on an oil rig, flying choppers when I could, but the nightlife nearly drove me 'round the bend". Studying that song in high school history classes about the Vietnam War, I never understood if it was a lack or surplus of nightlife that drove the song's narrator 'round the bend. But now I think I know: it was the lack thereof. It sounds like gruelling work: long shifts interspersed with bad food and sleep.

Weirdly enough, while writing this, I flicked over to Twitter, only to find Yassmin Abdel-Magied, well-known social activist and little-known mechanical engineer, talking on Radio National about her experience on oil rigs. According to her, there are usually only three to four women out of the 150 workers on a rig, but she also says that the dynamic can be different than those numbers suggest.

Regardless of what the reality might be, I liked the way Penney constructed Jo's work environment. She's friendly with the guys, but she'll never be one of the boys, and with an incompetent junior engineer and Stephen playing house in Perth, she becomes increasingly discontented with her job.

I picked up Fly In Fly Out the day after having my wisdom teeth removed. I guess I thought that, since it seemed light and had a familiar setting, I could read it through the fog of industrial-strength painkillers. If it had been a lesser book, I think I'd probably have mostly forgotten it by now, but the emotion of Fly In Fly Out is hard to forget. All those feels could have been the result of the oxycodone, but I'm pretty sure it was just good writing. 

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