Testing her wings

By Tahnee Hopman, Pix. by Athula Devapriya

When Shehani Gomes (24) sat listening to comments made on prospective winners of the Gratiaen Prize of 2005, it never for a moment occurred to her that her manuscript would be among those Shortlisted.

"I was just sitting there," she recalls, "listening to the panel of judges give their comments. Even when they started talking about a manuscript which dealt with adolescent life, it just did not register that they were speaking about my writing. And then, my friend who was sitting with me, turned towards me and looked at me intently and said, 'I think that's yours!'"

Described by its author as a "cross section of emotional highs," Learning to Fly is an intriguing and compelling tale of adolescents testing their wings before take off. For Shehani, the cover of the book – depicting an empty table left out in the rain, conveys perfectly the emotionally bare kind off feeling of the book."

Three "estranged" individuals – Kala, Dylan and Nadia grapple with the pangs of adolescence, dealing with first love and a measure of grief along the way. A striking aspect of Learning to Fly is the character development. Perceptive and insightful of the mindset of young adults, the challenges and triumphs of adolescence are described in colourful detail through the individual stories of the three characters. "My favourite is Kala!" exclaims Shehani, commenting that Kala's character is one she can relate to the most.

Aside from a simple narration of the story, Shehani's unique writing style complements the way in which characters have been brought to life. Conversations with “Mind Elves,” “Conversationalists” and fantasies on “Ifthemovieweretobe” bring out the dreams, desires and in most cases loneliness of the three estranged adolescents. The short, simply structured sentences – sometimes combining unrelated thoughts effectively convey each characters train of thought.

A tale told through a series of flashbacks, diary entries and varying points of view, it is not a quick read and deserves a second reading in order that the reader is able to absorb every last aspect of Shehani's creation.

Although it deals with loss and grief, Learning to Fly is by no means a sad story. Rather it is a story about happiness; about testing ones strength and capability before the first significant take off. It is all about learning how to deal with what life throws at you and appreciating every moment of the challenge.
The result of writing her way through a series of late nights and very early mornings, Learning to Fly will finally be launched on November 29.

"I never foresaw this piece of writing being published as a novel, and a successful one at that" smiles Shehani. "I enjoyed writing it, but then I always enjoyed writing! It is my passion. Given the chance, I would even write in the middle of a busy board meeting!"

While many people have asked Shehani if her characters and situations are based on real life, of this, she remains uncertain. "To me," she says, "the characters are a little borderline insane and not entirely realistic; for instance I don't think that you would find characters as extreme as these ones in real life. This was the point though; I generally prefer to write about characters that are beyond the call of daily life."

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