The relationship between any mother and her son is a complicated one to build and define. At its surface, Elizabeth Earley’s novel, Like Wings, Your Hands, seemingly aims to simply do just that—to explore the complicated lives of a mother and her son. As soon as the novel beings, the reader experiences the realization that this surface-expectation is quickly shattered as the characters are introduced. The son, who we learn has spinia bifidia, a disability which has left him paralyzed from the belly-button down, is 14-year-old Marko; and the mother, who we learn battles many of her own life debilitating demons, is Kali. This mother and son are the philosophical pawns of this novel, which is centered in the metaphorical universe that, mostly, exists only in their heads.
They are engaged by many key players and experiences that aid in building their relationship with one another, while also navigating their own sense of self. Within a short linear timeline, Earley manages to maneuver these characters through numerous realms of time and space. With a boy who suffers from, not just one single rare disease, but many, and a mother who seeks out another reality that is not her own, we develop our own answer, or lack of answer, to an important question: “[Can someone] be both rare and real?”
As Marko’s rareness applies most literally to his number of physical and mental disabilities, rareness exists in each of the novel’s characters. His mother, Kali, is a spiritual seeker, but ultimately fails to connect with others, including Marko. Trapped outside his mother’s spiritual barriers, Marko is forced to fulfil his own curiosity about why his mother will not let him in. Marko, due to being mostly physically immobile, learns to traverse and understand the world through the designation of colors and numbers, which aid in his interaction with his own feelings. As Marko grows older, he begins to rely more heavily on his mind, to make sense of the world around him. His initial desire to learn more about his mother widens, and in his realm of curiosity he begins to further consider other aspects of his life: his sexuality, an alternate life that is not spent in a wheelchair, his estranged grandfather, and his own absent father. Through the sneak-reading of his mother’s diary entries, which also contain letters from her estranged father, his need for understanding his mother becomes evident. While Marko desperately attempts to cling to the spirit of his mother, Kali fails to move on from her failures of the past and is unable to obtain the things that she desires.
Kali already lives a difficult life, being that she is a single mother to a child with several disabilities. She also has had to live with the aftermath of the disconnect with her own father, with Marko’s father, with her past abortions, and with constant disapproval from her own mother. We learn about her past failed relationships and her abortions through her therapy sessions. These sessions seem to lead to nothing but a means to escape the walls that are permanently around her when she is with Marko. Even at home, she has her “dream box”: a coffin-shaped dark box kept tucked away under her bed, which is used as another outlet to escape reality as we normally know it.
As the story progresses, Marko, too, discovers this “dream box”. However, unlike his mother, his own experiences with the “dream box” offer a different, positive result. Yet Marko experiences what he refers to as the “dark body”, a negative result of his mobile-mind. When he experiences mentally overstimulating situations, the “dark body” consumes him. These moments where he is consumed by the “dark body” conflict with the moments where he is escaping through the “dream box”. This then causes Marko to consider what cost these “dark body” encounters inflict, and if they are worth exceeding the limitations of his own mind.
Both Kali and Marko are actively searching for a concept of realness in their lives, and are connected through the same outlet. They do not even realize how close they actually are to one another already. Earley pays careful attention to the threads of these characters, and in doing so creates a sense of interconnectivity between everyone. These threads, thin and easily tangled, are constantly being untangled, yet somehow never freed. I found myself easily getting caught in the knot of their lives, and being unable to even free myself. While I believe that one of Earley’s primary purposes in writing this novel was to explore the feeling of being rare versus being real, and how easily our lives are entangled, it became difficult to follow. The lack of physical events that actually occurred during the novel’s timeline, compared to the number of things that were only experienced through each character’s minds, left me to wonder if this proposition—of being understood as both rare and real—is effective.
Considering that Kali and Marko’s stories are the most important, I feel that these two perspectives should have been the main focus. But the novel’s purest moments are interrupted during the breaks from the present to the past, with Kali’s estranged father dimming the characters’ own growth. While Kali’s life was extremely impacted by her father, his inclusion seems to take away from the most notable and powerful aspects of this book—every moment that is with Marko and Kali.
Like Wings, Your Hands, gives us lives that could very well connect to our own. In her colorful portrayal of Marko’s mind, and in her adept and accurate representation of Kali as a single mother to a disabled child, Earley handles writing about both physical and emotional disabilities in a way that is accessible to her audience. Balancing on the line of reality and rareness, Early successfully manages to evoke an open interpretation of the novel that has to be developed by our reading. And I think this, that open-endedness, is her entire point.
Like Wings, Your Hands, by Elizabeth Earley. Pasadena, California: Red Hen Press, October 2019. 288 pages. $17.95, paper.
Rayanna Pinnock is currently finishing her last year of undergrad at Wright State University. She is obtaining her BA in English with a concentration on creative writing, as well a minor in ASL. She enjoys novel and short story writing, and hopes to complete and publish her own novel one day. She is particularly interested in novel editing for her career path in the future.