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Weightless by Sarah Bannan

By Drharrietd @drharrietd

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Well, I know it's only April, but I can confidently tell you that this is going to be one of my favorite books of the year. And, like Wolf Winter, which I was telling you about recently, it was an almost random pick to use my reviewers credits on Audible. I started listening to it with little or no knowledge of what was awaiting me, though I've since read Victoria's review in Shiny 5, and her interview with the author in the BookBuzz section. 

There's so much to talk about and so much to admire in this debut novel. Yes, it's about teenage bullying in small-town America, but it's what Sarah Bannan makes of this theme that sets the book apart. Briefly, the novel is set in the (fictional) town of Adamsville, Alabama, more or less in the present day. The action takes place in and around the local High School, and is narrated -- in what may be a first -- in the first person plural ('We') by a group of three girl pupils. More on this later. As the story begins, the girls are sitting in the baking summer sun, watching the cheerleaders perform, and commenting on everyone's appearance, clothes, weight and hairstyle. Then they spot someone they've never seen before -- a new girl.

It's important to remember how weird this was -- a new girl coming to our town -- how unused to it we all were. And not just us: our parents, the teachers, the coaches -- them too. Adamsville wasn't a place that people came to. It was a place you were from, where you were born, where you were raised, where you stayed.

Carolyn Lesser is not only new, she is beautiful, clever, and friendly. And at first, everyone tries to be friendly with her, to help her to fit in -- and, of course, to find out as much about her as possible. Facebook is a great help here, and everyone shares all the information they can acquire by text, including the photos the girls take of her bathroom when they are invited to her house. But things begin to go wrong when Carolyn starts dating the gorgeous Shane Duggan, up to now the property of lovely (though now slightly overweight) cheerleader Brooke Moore. Soon the tide of opinion has started to turn against Carolyn, ugly gossip begins circulating, and the final tragedy seems almost inevitable. 

So what's going on here? We might start by thinking about the title. Weight is certainly a theme that runs through the novel. All the characters are obsessed with it, and girls are admired for their thinness. Brooke has gained pounds in the summer vacation and has started a regime involving bulimia. Carolyn, whose slender body is a source of great envy and admiration, proves to have a daily chart pinned up by the weighing machine in her bathroom. But there's another element to weightlessness too. Every year there's a balloon festival in Adamsville, and the girls get to go up in one and look down at the people below -- we see this happen twice, once near the beginning and once in the epilogue. The first time, they take pleasure in being able to observe the goings on -- they see Carolyn, holding hands with Shane, a piece of useful information to add to the list. A year later, they are wiser, more self aware:

This was as it had always been, us together, ready to rise into the air, weightless....

We looked down at the ground and saw it all change in front of us, people blurred into colours, the ground blurred into shapes. From where we were, the ground started to make sense, appear complete, under control. We were at a distance from it and could only see what we needed to see. From here, we thought, if a car crashed, you wouldn't hear it, and even if you did, it would look like a toy, it wouldn't be real. From here, we couldn't distinguish the adults from the children, the new buildings from the old, the pools from the ponds. We liked it up here, we knew this, to be at a remove from things, to be out of touch, out of control.

I hardly need to tell you that this has a relationship to the position the girls have taken throughout the novel -- they 'could only see what we needed to see'. They have deliberately distanced themselves from the events they have seen passing before their eyes, refusing to get involved, not allowing themselves to make connections or to pass on information which could, perhaps, have prevented the tragic developments.

I've seen people compare the 'We' narrators to a Greek chorus, but they are more than that -- they could almost be said to be what the story is really about. Bullying happens, and not just in small town Alabama, and people often know what's going on but don't want to get involved. So, although these girls do not have distinct separate personalities (or probably because of this) they stand as a terrible representation of what happens if you choose to keep yourself 'at a remove from things'. 

So Weightless is really a novel of social commentary, and the picture it presents is a worrying one. When the girls say 'we couldn't distinguish the adults from the children', I think this resonates throughout the novel. The adults seem very immature themselves and are completely blind to the needs of their children -- and yes, these are children, fifteen and sixteen year olds, whose parents insist on churchgoing and preach morality, but have no idea what really goes on in their lives. The internet bears a lot of responsibility too -- impossible images of skinny women, the desirability of the latest fashion items, sexualised social  media, the ability to find out about people's lives and to communicate that knowledge with a few flicks of the fingers -- all these things have added to the mounting pressure on Carolyn and her classmates. Perhaps this makes it sound as if it might be preachy and moralistic, but believe me it is a fantastic read (or in my case listen) -- unputdownable and highly recommended.


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