Book Review: Dirty Wings, Sarah McCarry

Sarah McCarry’s Dirty Wings is the followup to All Our Pretty Songsher amazing YA debut from last year. If you haven’t read All Our Pretty Songs yet, you should really get on it, because, as I mentioned, it’s amazing — you can read my thoughts on it, in fact, if you need further persuasion. Fortunately for you, though, you don’t have to read All Our Pretty Songs to enjoy Dirty Wings, which takes place in the same world and involves some of the same characters, but acts as a standalone: it’s the story of Maia and Cass, the mothers, the older generation, those who made mistakes and loved fiercely and tried to figure out their lives and, in a way, set up some of the same mistakes for their beautiful, fierce, firecracker daughters.

I love Sarah’s writing because it’s luscious, rich, and highly literary — she has a distinct and beautiful and singing voice that stands out head and shoulders above many other YA authors because she is totally unafraid to be lyrical. Her books read almost like prose poems at times, with beautiful, ornate metaphors that send you climbing up into the stratosphere at one moment and then crashing down at the moment, nerves jangling like an abused piano. Her way with language is so utterly compelling and delicious that I want to curl up in it, lie down, and go to sleep forever; at times, I almost think she must have sold her soul to the devil to be able to write like this (but that might just be because I have soul-selling on the brain after reading her books).

In Dirty Wings, Maia is a sheltered girl who’s spent her whole life being pressured to be a concert pianist. She has extraordinary skills, and she’s well on her way, with an audition at a prestigious conservatory set up for her and everything on track for a glittering career. Until, that is, she steps out of her gilded cage and meets Cass, a street rat who introduces her to a different world, one of punk rock and grunge and sharp edges. It’s a head trip for Maia, who’s lived in a perfectly maintained beige trap ever since being adopted from Vietnam as a child, and she falls hard for both Cass and her life. Suddenly her own world isn’t enough, and she spins off on an adventure with Cass, throwing her life away in pursuit of a deeper understanding of herself.

She might be a tourist in the punk world, with Cass continually terrified that Maia’s fragile embrace of sex, drugs, and rock and roll may fall away, leading Maia to return to her previous life, but fate, the devil, and a rocker boy intervene. Jason drives a wedge between the best friends, and when Cass tries to get of Jason, she makes a fatal mistake by trying to bargain with the devil. Instead of fixing her relationship with her best friend, she realises that she’s drawn Maia closer to a dangerous precipice that Maia can’t even see, thanks to her infatuation and innocence, and Cass’ friendship becomes a deep betrayal.

There is so much packed into Dirty Wings that it almost becomes difficult to tease apart. It’s a book about race, culture, sexuality, class, and counterculture, but it’s also a book about love, friendship, breaking free of a chrysalis and into a world that can be harsh and unwelcoming, but also filled with fantastic possibility. It’s a retelling, but it’s a fierce, desperate, greedy, jangly retelling, not a comfortable, smooth, easy one that goes down serenely. Sarah is unafraid to lead her characters down dark paths and force them to find their own way out, and the outcomes for her characters are rarely good; there are no happy endings in her retellings, no easy lights in darkness.

Maia and Cass live in a world that is not simple. It’s a world that’s painfully familiar to many young adults (and older adults!) who haven’t experienced neat, tidy versions of childhood — neither character has been able to have a childhood at all, with each being forced to grow up in radically different and painful ways, subject to abuse and pressures from the adults around them. This book is an homage to all of us who didn’t get to have childhoods, to all of us who have been wayward children, to all of us who have lived lives outside the ‘norm’ and grappled with questions of identity, love, friendship, and sense of place in a world that continually rejects us.

Sarah’s been compared to Francesca Lia Block, and the two authors certainly have a great deal in common, but she stands on her own, and has a distinctive voice. It’s one that’s transcendent, aching, and beautiful, even when it’s slapping you (or her characters) in the face, and it makes her books painfully compelling and glorious. I can’t wait to read more from her, because I know it’s going to be amazing, and I love the way she immerses me in these awesome (original sense) worlds that are relentlessly raw and open, even as they constantly challenge and demand my full attention as a reader.

What I’m saying is, basically, read everything by Sarah McCarry ever, because you will not regret it even for a second, I promise.