Axiatrix can’t escape genre

Blackbirds, 225 pages, $19.95

Blackbirds Two, 226 pages, $19.95

By Garry Ryan

NeWest Press

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

Garry Ryan has eight novels to his name, a following for his Detective Lane series, a Lambda award and a great premise in Blackbirds and Blackbirds Two. In these first two of the trilogy he draws attention to women pilots in the Second World War, and unearths little known historical facts such as the eleven black POWs who were tortured and murdered by the SS in Wereth, Belgium.

Sharon Lacey, a young Canadian who goes to England in 1940 to fly for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), is also looking for her estranged father and soon becomes entangled in sordid family dynamics. Much happens to her in the first book, including brawls with Messerschmitts and discovering she has a half brother. Blackbird Two follows her through war, where she evolves into a hard-nosed senior commander with a passion for social justice. Like all fictional war heroes, she kills, suffers moral conflict, and amidst the carnage performs good deeds. Sharon is a woman tucked squarely into the war story canon. The ATA, not typically engaged in combat, served without fighting– a dichotomy that might be explored in a more literary book. However, such story telling would require a nuance that is not demonstrated in these books.

Not hours before reading myself into the cockpit of a spitfire with Sharon, I raced across the Nevada salt flats with a female motorcyclist in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Though both books involve women engaged in high-speed atypical behavior, the irresistible comparison settles more on genre than gender. Ryan’s books are about an aviatrix while Kushner’s is not about a female motorcyclist, though on that bike, you get how “nothing mattered except the milliseconds of life at that speed.” There are no lines so fine in the Blackbird trilogy, and this makes The Flamethrowers a work of literary fiction while the two Blackbirds are fair to middling plot-gobblers.

Graduate school teaches that it matters less what a book is about than how it is written. The formula is simple: there is good writing and bad writing, and plot-driven writing is bad. Furthermore, one should avoid the “expected.” I see little in Blackbirds that is unexpected other than gender and a sprinkling of historical facts.

When I think of the genre wars I want to lie down, and though I’m over MFA school, I grow even more weary when, while happily fantasizing myself into the character of a Second World War pilot, I encounter yet another head of  “slicked back” hair, or I’m meant to feel the character’s “tingling thrill.” This ejects me out of my fictional dream.

And yet, there were brief moments while reading Ryan’s books when I was able to slide into the cockpit of a spitfire face to face with the firmament and nothing stopping me, neither gender nor Nazi plane. Maybe at the end of the genre wars there’s only this, the simple pleasure of an image.

Judy LeBlanc is a writer who lives in Fanny Bay and organizes the Fat Oyster Reading Series.