This is one of those books you hear so much about that it would be a crime not to pay any attention to all the great reviews. Indeed, after seeing the gorgeous cover, and reading the blurb I thought it sounded so original and such a cool blend of culture, hobbies, and the sombre, that I had to give Katherine Webber’s Wing Jones (2017) a try.
Wing is an American teen growing up in 1995 Atlanta, and with Chinese heritage on her mum’s side and Ghanaian on her dad’s, she’s always felt a bit different and strange. Especially because her brother has managed to overcome these perceived barriers and be the school football star. But when Marcus, her brother, is responsible for a fatal drink-driving car accident, Wing’s world is turned upside down too.
Wing is the star of this novel, undoubtedly: a likeable character who never whines, never complains, despite her situation, she really grows into herself. Wing goes from loner always in the background of her brother’s story to her own heroine, becoming a part of the girls’ running team, and taking on the responsibility of supporting her family emotionally and financially. Her blossoming relationship with Aaron maintains completely within her own control, and she learns to do things by herself, rather than with the help of her boyfriend. In a book about a girl learning to run, learning to love her body and what it can do, this decision to have romance take a back seat is crucial and really pays off.
I also really respected Webber’s decision not to shy away from the realities of life. The plot revolving around Marcus and his crime, whilst handled sensitively, was carried through to the logical and fair end, with no magic wand waved to let him off for his actions. Similarly, the financial difficulties and the strain it puts on a family as a result, was given a really good amount of time, and aided in providing Wing with a strong, respectable motive for her competitive running. It was also really inspiring and uplifting to see that, in the end, Wing could turn away from that competitiveness, and return to the simple pleasures of doing what she enjoys just for herself.
And yet, despite all these great aspects, something about Wing Jones was lacking for me. The setting in 1995 seemed arbitrary; aside from offhanded references to race relations and homophobia, the dating really provided no sense of a particular time, and therefore felt random. Additionally, the potential for education in and discussion of Wing’s intriguingly mixed cultural heritage lay unfulfilled. In fact, I might even, as much as it pains me to, suggest that the ‘lion’ and ‘dragon’ of Wing’s imagination, that are always encouraging her onwards, are nothing more than cliched and worn-out symbols for a generically ‘African’ and ‘Asian’ ancestry. These really put a downer on my reading experience, as I kept expecting these issues to be resolved and was disappointed when they weren’t.