REVIEW by Suzanne Beynon

NWR Issue 103


by Jeremy Hughes

Set across America, Wales and Suffolk, Wingspan is the emotional and ambitious story of a man whose father died in an air crash in World War II. Alternating between the narrative of the father and the stronger narrative of the son, Wingspan presents a man who desperately needs to let go of the past to realise the possibility of the future. 

Following the death of his mother, the son discovers that he has been unable to identify himself where he is not simply half of his mother and half of his father and is consequently compelled to embark on a path of self-­‐discovery. Overcome with grief and, more so, dissatisfaction with his fifty-year-old state, our character decides to track down the father whom he never knew in the hope that this will help unravel the enigma of his own identity. However, he does not realise that it is not his father that he is searching for, but himself.

Wingspan is consequently a compelling and, at times, heart-breaking read:
My fiftieth birthday dinner was simple and private. I put my father's photograph on one placemat and a photograph of my mother on another. Three glasses. I filled mine and clinked theirs. Cheers.

Hughes addresses the haunting question of what happens if we never seek independence from our parents. Our character is also faced with the realisation that he has never been encouraged to define himself and battles the inevitable bitterness that accompanies this discovery. How now does he survive without the mother from whom he has never been able to dissociate himself? Putting the parallel narrative of his father aside, the son's journey is by far the strongest element of the book and it creates a chilling narrative voice that remains with you long after you finish reading.

While the protagonist is not unbelievable, he does represent an extreme. This does not inhibit one's ability to relate to him. Fifty years old, his voice reads as being as youthful and naive as, say, Salinger's Holden Caulfield; that is, if he had never been driven by the need to rebel. But the lack of rebellion on the part of Hughes' main narrator is what makes him equally as frustrating as Salinger's protagonist. HIs ability to frustrate the reader adds another layer to the novel and shapes the reader's reaction to the plot as a whole.

Juxtaposed with this youthful naivety is a mature self-awareness that mirrors the obvious confusion that the narrator has about his identity. He wonders where a train full of commuters saw themselves when they were fifty.
I'll be rich and famous, married to a handsome man/beautiful woman and have beautiful kids, drive a Rolls Royce and swim in my pool every day, go to America on holiday, buy all my food at Marks & Spencer's.... But here they are, tired, in a carriage of tired people whose essay is the same as theirs. 'Could have done better' written on their faces, surfacing from their graveyard to think of what keeps them on track, the family, the home, the mortgage for which they do this day in day out.

While he is faced with the fact that he does not have any of these things to keep him on track, the reader can feel hopeful that they can now take a journey with him whereby he can start from scratch and build a life for himself. We must hope that he also realises this.

Our narrator admits that he hasn't 'lived'; he doesn't 'know what love is'. However, these comments indicate that our protagonist needs this youthful naivety in order to be this maturely self-aware. We all need our inner child to realise the pitfalls of maturity and it is our inner child that can drive us to change. At least, this is what I took from it.

This aside, I did have one criticism of Wingspan. While the strength of the narrative absorbs the reader into the minds of both narrators, the world of Hughes' novel is still out of reach of the reader's imagination. The novel draws on a contrast of incredibly rich landscapes but their importance to the story is never clearly evident. Our protagonist describes Wales as 'a different world' but as a reader, I could never grasp why this land seemed so foreign to him. The Welsh landscape in particular could have been put to much more use in order to reinforce the mysterious, and almost mythical thread that is interwoven between the parallel plots. As a result, I could not help but feel unfulfilled when I finished reading.

That being said, Wingspan is an intriguing, enlightening and enigmatic novel that I would encourage anyone to spend their weekend reading.

Suzanne Beynon is a contributor to New Welsh Review online.


previous review: The Good News
next review: Down to the Sea in Ships: Of Ageless Oceans and Modern Men


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