At first read, you might think Fling! by Lily Iona MacKenzie is a delightful story with endearing, charming characters—which it is. But look a little closer, and you’ll find it’s also a probing story picking at deep layers of family love and resentment. Just below the characters’ zest for life lie feelings of aloneness and abandonment. Once those feelings are laid bare, can they ever be subdued?
Fling!’s main characters are mother and daughter Bubbles and Feather. Ninety-year-old Bubbles is still full of enthusiasm and looking for laughter wherever she can find it. MacKenzie tells us Bubbles’ motto is fun. “Life was too short; you needed to have a little fun. … Money didn’t matter that much to her, as long as she could have a good time.”
As Bubbles looks for a good time, she provides an abundance of funny moments in the novel. One of my favorites is when she finds Feather’s spray for releasing wrinkles in clothes. Seeing that it says “wrinkle-free,” she sprays it on her face. When Feather tells her what it really is, she insists it works on skin, too, and that she looks years younger already. She also stores money, travelers’ checks, and various photos in her bra.
Although Bubbles is funny and quirky, my favorite character is Feather. Feather is 57 years old and still eagerly searching for her place in life, a place where she feels comfortable and welcome. She plans to spend the summer in Mexico studying painting and pursuing a relationship with the moon goddess that the Aztecs worshipped. Bubbles disrupts those plans when she’s notified that her mother’s ashes have suddenly surfaced in the dead-letter office in Mexico City, and she wants Feather to go with her to retrieve them.
Reluctantly, Feather agrees, and the two women set off on the adventure that becomes the catalyst of the story. Having Mexico as their destination is significant. MacKenzie suggests throughout the novel that Mexico is different and things that happen nowhere else can happen there. In this way, the setting suggests a destination that is not entirely physical, but perhaps mental or emotional.
The “otherness” of Mexico is also the perfect environment for MacKenzie’s introduction of magical realism. By the time the magic happens, I was ready to embrace it and its significance to the story. As Bubbles and Feather are driving to San Miguel after retrieving the urn of ashes in Mexico City, Bubbles remarks “Mother might be thirsty,” and pours water into the urn.
Before long, the car is rocking and shaking, the urn cracks, and Bubbles’ mother, Heather, is sitting in the back seat, staring at herself in a hand mirror. “I look like death—a real fright,” she says.
Actually, she looks like an attractive middle-aged woman, which she was when she died. And now she’s visiting with her 90-year-old daughter. Every time I imagined these two together, I had to smile. When Feather points out to Bubbles that they’re going to have a problem getting Heather into the United States without a passport, Bubbles suggests, “We’ll buy a bigger urn.”
After the three women are settled into a hotel in San Miguel, they’re greeted one evening by thousands of moths in their room. Heather gleefully explains, “The dead appear to us as moths and knock on our window at night.” They turn off the lights and shoo the moths away, but as Feather is tending to Bubbles, Heather begins talking to an elderly man and woman in the room. “Meet me mother and father,” she says.
So now four generations of the family are gathered together, which is when the real magic begins to happen. Life hasn’t been easy for any of them. Old issues that they’ve never addressed before begin to surface. Old anger and resentment are recognized for the first time. But Bubbles and Feather also realize the strong need they have for community.
Fling! is a joyful novel, full of humor and surprising escapades. The characters are all lovable and memorable. But the part of the novel that has stuck with me most is its message about the endurance of family relationships. Don Miguel, a Mexican shaman who attracts Feather’s affection and has a swirl of magical realism all his own, explains, “The worlds of the living and the dead are fluid, constantly interacting.” In other words, are we ever really alone?
Join me here next month for an interview with Lily Iona MacKenzie. The author of Fling! will share thoughts on magical realism and other writing approaches and techniques.