HOW IT FEELS TO FLOAT
Biz knows how to float, right there on the surface—normal okay regular fine. She has her friends, her mom, the twins. She has Grace. And she has her dad, who shouldn’t be here but is. So Biz doesn’t tell anyone anything—not about her dark, runaway thoughts, not about kissing Grace or noticing Jasper, the new boy. And not about seeing her dad. Because her dad died when she was seven.
But after what happens on the beach, the tethers that hold Biz steady come undone. Her dad disappears and, with him, all comfort. It might be easier, better,
Biz knows how to float, right there on the surface—normal okay regular fine. She has her friends, her mom, the twins. She has Grace. And she has her dad, who shouldn’t be here but is. So Biz doesn’t tell anyone anything—not about her dark, runaway thoughts, not about kissing Grace or noticing Jasper, the new boy. And not about seeing her dad. Because her dad died when she was seven.
But after what happens on the beach, the tethers that hold Biz steady come undone. Her dad disappears and, with him, all comfort. It might be easier, better, sweeter to float all the way away? Or maybe stay a little longer, find her father, bring him back to her. Or maybe—maybe maybe maybe—there’s a third way Biz just can’t see yet.
- Dial Books
- April 2023
- 400 Pages
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year
A Chicago Public Library Best of the Best of the Year
“I haven’t been so dazzled by a YA in ages. . . . Biz’s voice is wild and rollicking, lyrical and hilarious, utterly authentic . . . There isn’t a false note.” —Jandy Nelson, author of I’ll Give You the Sun (via School Library Journal)
“[How It Feels to Float] explores intergenerational mental illness in a way that is nothing short of exquisite.” —PopSugar
“A profoundly moving story about grief, loss, and love that will take your breath away. Helena Fox is a writer to be reckoned with.” —Kathleen Glasgow, author of Girl in Pieces
“Give this to all your friends immediately . . . It tackles mental health, depression, sexual identity, and anxiety with beauty and empathy.” —Cosmopolitan.com
“Lyrical and profoundly affecting, providing a nuanced account of the hereditary effects of trauma. Haunting.” —Kirkus (starred review)
“Biz is smart, funny, and self-deprecating . . . [How It Feels to Float is] a masterful portrayal of mental illness that illuminates the complex interplay between emotional trauma and the mind’s subsequent recoil. And the writing is just beautiful.” —Booklist (starred review)
• Death and Grief
‘The dead leave us all the time, Sylvia.’ (p 126)
Discussion Point: Biz has never recovered from her father Stephen’s death. He never recovered from his father Martin’s death. Is grief surmountable? How should one endeavour to cope with grief?
Discussion Point: Stephen’s grief was exacerbated by having a child who reminded him of how fragile life can be. He worried constantly that Biz would be injured or die (p 48) in his hands. Every parent feels this to a certain extent, but Stephen’s feelings were extreme. How difficult must it have been for Stephen to feel this way for so long? How do you think Laura felt about and coped with Stephen’s prolonged feelings of fear and overwhelm?
Discussion Point: Have you felt so sad you couldn’t breathe? Has your throat hurt, your chest hurt, your bones? (p 104)
Partway through the book, Biz is toppled by fresh grief after her father disappears and she loses Grace. How does her grief here (and earlier in the book) affect Biz’s thoughts and her way of seeing the world? How does it change Biz’s behaviour and influence her decisions? How do you feel grief affects people’s mental health?
Discussion Point: Sylvia has dealt with Ronald’s death by embracing her memories of him (p 126). Laura also often talks about Biz’s dad and keeps mementos of him throughout the house (p 120). How are Sylvia’s and Laura’s coping mechanisms for grief similar, and how are they different? Do you think Laura has overcome her grief at the loss of Stephen? Has she actually, as Biz says, let him go? (p 135)
• Depression and Anxiety
‘Your father had a softness in him that went gooey after you were born,’ she said. He looked the same but parts of him had loosened. You can’t reconstruct a man like him, she said. You can try. He did try.’ (p 58)
Discussion Point: Read the passage describing Biz’s depression and visits to the psychiatrist (pp 101–5). Did her feelings make sense to you? Do you think these feelings are common? (Note: Teachers will need to be sensitive to their students’ experiences in this area and may choose not to explore this topic.)
Discussion Point: Biz contemplates suicide (p 94) and again later: The feeling of wanting to leave comes so suddenly, I can’t stop it before it hits. (p 115) Discuss the strategies Biz learns to use when confronted with such feelings. (Note: Teachers need to be aware of their students’ experiences in this regard prior to embarking on such an open discussion.)
Discussion Point: Bridgit’s skills at listening and encouraging Biz to speak about her feelings (p 106) are a positive step forward for her. How important is it to talk about your feelings to someone who genuinely listens?
Discussion Point: Every day I have to cross the train tracks to get to school. Every time I think, What if the signals are wrong, and a train comes out of the blue and hits me as I cross? (p 11)
Biz has many anxious runaway thoughts and experiences numerous panic attacks in the novel. What do you think Biz feels about experiencing these moments? How does she deal with them throughout the course of the novel?
Discussion Point: Biz’s dad clearly suffered depression, as a result of his fractured upbringing and loss of parents as a child. Martin James (Biz’s grandfather) also suffered from serious mental health issues. In hospital, Biz says, ‘You can’t escape your history. It’s like a river that follows you, blood that moves without you thinking. The past turns corners to find you.’ (p 337)
In this statement, Biz seems to imply that having a family history of mental illness means you’re helpless against it. Do you agree? Do you understand why Biz feels this way in this moment? Studies have shown that hereditary factors can play a part in whether a person experiences mental health issues, but people dealing with intergenerational mental illness can develop strategies to avoid or minimise its effects. Do you think in time and with treatment, Biz will change how she feels about the past?
Discussion Point: I’ve made an appointment to see Bridgit; soon I guess we’ll start putting me back together, bit by bit by bit. (p 361)
At the end of the book, Biz is about to return to her sessions with Bridgit, to treat her mental health. How do you think Biz feels about doing this work? Do you think it does any good to ‘fight’ a mental illness and try to ‘get rid of it’ or is it better to accept an illness and learn to manage and live with it?
I’m soaking and thinking about floating, thinking about water, thinking about being water, when something flicks inside me—OFF to ON, or would it be ON to OFF?—and I leave my body and turn molecular. (p 113)
Discussion Point: Biz dissociates often in the novel. In Biz’s case her dissociation is both
a direct and delayed response to trauma. People sometimes describe dissociation as a kind of ‘floating’— a feeling of not quite being in your body, and sometimes feeling entirely separate from it. Dissociation can become a persistent response to even small triggers, and can result in people feeling far away and ‘not quite here’ almost constantly. This feeling can bring comfort or distress, depending on the situation.
Have you experienced anything like this, or has a friend or loved one? How would you describe it, or how have they described, the feeling? Would it be good for people to talk more openly about dissociation as a mental health condition? (Note: Teachers will need to be sensitive to their students’ experiences in this area.)
Discussion Point: Biz dissociates more and more frequently as the novel progresses. Can you identify other moments in the novel where she ‘floats’? When do you feel her dissociation helps Biz and when do you think it make things more difficult for her?
Discussion Point: ‘…it’s not the worst thing. The mind does it to protect you. It’s a cushion for those moments when things are too much—it’s the brain’s defence mechanism.’ (p 367)
Biz is told to not be afraid of her dissociation, and that it is a normal reaction under the circumstances. She is reassured she will learn in time how to bring herself back to ground. What do you think of this advice? Do you feel it helps to understand how the brain works and the science behind mental illness?
Discussion Point: Trauma can be a major trigger for mental health problems, and it can also profoundly affect pre-existing mental health conditions. Biz has had a very difficult past. Discuss some ways that Biz has tried to cope with her trauma. How effective do you think these techniques are?
Discussion Point: There was the time I was seven and saw my father in that room, in that wooden house on stilts, and I took off down the stairs, onto the back verandah and down the steep slope, tumbling almost over, almost splitting my crown like Jack or Jill. (p 49)
Biz has a lot of repressed memories of her past trauma. She doesn’t directly face them until the end of the book. Where do you see those memories surfacing as she tells her story? Sometimes she actively works to bury the memory (p 188). What is the effect on Biz, of holding those memories in?
Discussion Point: Three traumatic events from Biz’s past are revealed to us toward the
end of the novel (pp. 344-351) How do you think these events have affected her life? What changes for Biz after remembering these events? Do you feel facing the past helps you move forward into the future?
Discussion Point: This moment will pass. Another one will come. Hard will come – grief and dark and worry and loss. Again. Again. Sooner. Later. (p 367)
At the end of the novel, Biz is more aware of her mental health issues and the work she needs to do to recover from her past trauma. She also knows she will probably have difficult times again. How do you think Biz feels about this? Do you think there is hope for Biz at the end of the novel? Do you think her father will continue to visit and comfort her now?
• Friendship and Peer Group Pressure
. . . and for a second we look like an old photograph of us from a month ago, when we were whole and untouchable and nothing at all had changed between us. (p 55)
Discussion Point: Grace and Biz have been best friends ‘forever’ but after Grace’s ill-fated romance with Suryan and the events at the police station, Grace disappears from Biz’s life, not replying to her texts or emails. This leaves Biz devastated. Why does Grace abandon her? Was their friendship ever as strong as Biz thought it was? What hints are there in the novel regarding the nature of their friendship?
Discussion Point: Biz reflects on Jasper and the ‘groups’ (p 32) he might join when he arrives at their school, indicating how regimented this society is and how much it is driven by peer group pressure. Do you find that your school is divided into groups like this? How easy is it to resist being classified as a member of such a group?
Discussion Point: Young people can often feel pressured to have sex before they are ready for the experience. Biz comes very close to sleeping with Tim on the beach and his wrath makes him lie about the experience and makes her a pariah at their school. What do you think affected Biz’s choices on the beach? Have you (or a friend) had a similar experience to this, and what was the result? If you are unsure about doing something and feel pressured to do it, what might influence your decision? What do you think your options are?
Discussion Point: When Grace has sex with Suryan, ultimately she is judged for doing so (p 80). Why is Grace ‘slut-shamed’ and not Suryan? Have you seen or experienced this kind of thing happening? Do you think this happens only to girls and not to boys? If so, what can be done to change this kind of gender imbalance?
Discussion Point: The Posse abandon (or ‘fire’) both Elizabeth and Grace and: The landscape slides into a mess of scars. (p 80) How common is such ostracism at your school? Have you ever rebelled against such behaviour?
Discussion Point: Truth and truth split in two and walk side by side. (p 194) Biz’s realisation that Jasper saw an event differently to how she did is a great lesson for anyone. Try to put yourself in a friend’s shoes and imagine what they might be thinking about an event in which you have participated in.
Discussion Point: Jasper’s friendship with Biz is tested by her illness. Nevertheless, he supports her when she has a breakdown in Temora and visits her in hospital later. The novel makes reference to how his parents might feel about the relationship (p 340). How easy/difficult is to support a friend with problems like Biz’s?
Discussion Point: Biz’s friendship with the elderly Sylvia is unexpected, given the age difference, but they clearly have things in common apart from photography. What other interests or personality traits do they share?
‘I don’t actually know what I am,’ I say. And I think that’s true. Am I bi? Am I gay? Am I something else? It makes my head fog to think about it. (p 21)
Discussion Point: At the novel’s opening, Biz has recently kissed Grace. She is reassured
to learn that while Grace wants only to be friends, the kiss won’t affect their friendship. Biz also isn’t sure if she wants more with Grace. When she meets the new boy, Jasper, she’s drawn to him, but she doesn’t necessarily want to kiss him either. She doesn’t know who she’s attracted to—or if she’s attracted to anyone—and by the end of the book she doesn’t necessarily have an answer about her sexuality.
This novel explores the questioning many young people (and people of all ages) can go through regarding their sexual identity. Sexuality can be fluid, and many people may not yet be sure of their feelings. What do you think of Biz’s questioning; can you relate to what she is experiencing? How important is it to be open to your feelings and not to allow society to force a presumed role upon you?
Discussion Point: (Or maybe he’s bi? Maybe he’s demi? Maybe he’s pan . . . ? (p 341)
We now know there are many more sexual identities than heterosexual or gay. How much do you know about the different labels for sexual identity? Do you think you have more to learn? Do you think it helps to know about the broad sexuality spectrum when figuring out your sexuality?
Discussion Point: Biz realises Jasper is almost-definitely gay towards the end of the book (p 298), but doesn’t ask him about it. Why does she decide not to ask? Why do you think someone might not announce their sexuality, even if they know what it is?
• Moral Choices
Mum says I could have gone to jail. Which makes sense because I nearly killed someone.
Which is exactly the same as: I killed someone.
I didn’t throw the rock, but I let Grace throw it.
I didn’t drink four Red Bulls with vodka, but I watched Grace drink them.
I didn’t sleep with Tim, but told Tim I would sleep with Tim . . . But here I am. (p 93)
Discussion Point: Biz is horrified when she realises the implications of Grace’s act in throwing the rock through Suryan’s window. Discuss with students the quote above, and the moral dimensions of this incident and its relation to events in their own lives.
Discussion Point: Grace’s punishment is Biz’s as well. (p 92) Is that fair? Did she deserve her police warning and suspension?
Discussion Point: What other moral choices are made by any character in this novel?
Plot & Structure
1. The events which make up the plot of a novel are designed to flesh out characters and themes. This novel is structured by Biz returning to events in the past as ‘flashbacks’ via her conversations with her father and gradually revealing the events which have led to this moment in time.
Discussion Point: Which particular flashback had the most impact on your reading of this novel?
2. Tension or Suspense are essential to a novel’s structure and are created by gradually revealing answers to several questions posed at the beginning: How did Biz’s father die? Will her friendship with Grace survive? Will she and Jasper become friends? Will Biz be able to cope with her illness?
Discussion Point: Are there other questions left unanswered in this novel? What are they?
3. Pacing a Story to achieve minor and major climaxes is integral to a novel’s structure. Each chapter begins with a tempting statement, for example:
Well, how about that? Today I’m seventeen. (p 163)
Each ends with a cliff hanger, for example,
Somewhere, sometime, Mum must have let him go. (p 135)
Activity: Choose the beginning of any chapter and write a short alternative passage to follow it.
4. Turning points or conflicts structure the action in a novel as well. Discussion Point: What were the key turning points in this novel?
5. Exposition is important in structuring a novel. The text (pp 3–5) at the opening of How It Feels to Float is an excellent example of ‘exposition’. The novelist sets the scene by giving the reader access to Biz’s inner thoughts and we learn a great deal about what has already happened in her young life.
Activity: Make a list of the things we learn about Biz in this passage.
Major Characters: Action in this novel revolves around the narrator Elizabeth (Biz) Martin Grey; her dead father, Stephen Grey; her mother, Laura Grey; her twin siblings, Billie and Dart; her once-best friend, Grace Yu-Harrison; her new best friend, Jasper Alessio; and her 83-year-old friend, Sylvia, who is Jasper’s grandmother.
Minor Characters: The Posse: Evie, Stu, Miff, Rob, and Sal; Suryan and Tim; Ms Hastings; Mr Birch; her psychologist, Bridgit; the photography tutor, Carol; Laura Grey’s Boyfriend; Doctor Max; George; the taxi driver.
1. Characters can be unreliable narrators.
Discussion Point: The novel is told through Biz’s first person point of view. Numerous times throughout the book, Biz describes facts that appear later to not be true.
‘When did you go to the shop?’
‘When you were calling your mum.’
I stare at him. I didn’t call my mum. We texted while Jasper lay on a bench. (p 294)
Can you find other moments where Biz’s narration tells only part of the ‘truth’ of the book? Why do you think Biz’s truth is so slippery?
Discussion Point: How did Biz’s unreliable narration affect your reading of the book? Can you think of another novel with an unreliable narrator in it?
2. Characters can be described by someone else in the novel.
Discussion Point: Biz describes Jasper on his first day (p 32). What does this description suggest about him?
3. Characters are also often described in terms which relate them metaphorically to someone or something else.
Discussion Point: What does the following description of Jasper suggest about him?
What did you expect, Biz, someone mappable? He’s a mystery and not a mystery, like the two sides of a coin or a heart or the sea. (p 214)
4. Dialogue can also add to characterisation.
Discussion Point: The conversation between Biz and Jasper gives us information about him (pp 211–2) as do their texts (pp 217–18). What sort of person do these dialogues suggest he is?
5. Writers generally create a mixture of characters, some intended to invoke sympathy in the reader, and others not to. There are also some characters who defy categorisation — whose motives remain obscure.
Discussion Point: Which characters in this novel did you have sympathy for and why? Which ones were unattractive, or annoyed you? Were there any ‘minor’ characters you would have liked more information about, for example, Laura Grey’s ‘boyfriend’?
6. Character Study
Activity: Write a character study of Laura Grey, based on the aspects of characterisation listed above.
7. Character Study
Activity: Write a character study of Stephen Grey, based on the aspects of characterisation listed above.
Style & Use of Language
1. The novel is written in the first person, and present tense voice of Biz. This narrative could also have been written in another voice. For example, Biz peels her polaroid photos open and her father’s voice takes over in first person (p 320).
Activity: Write a journal entry as if by Jasper describing the rail journey to Temora.
2. Voice is created by a range of devices including syntax and use of language.
Activity: What distinctive aspects of style did you notice in the crafting of Biz’s voice?
3. Literary devices such as metaphor, simile and personification are frequently used in this novel, for example:
Monday morning, seven-thirty, and it’s so hot the house feels like it’s melting. Cicadas scream through the windows. The dog pants on the kitchen floor. (p 7)
. . . it makes me feel like I’m floating, like I’m one of those balloons people let go, even though that balloon is going to fall in the ocean and kill a turtle. (p 56)
Birds cuddle on the branches and clouds clank against each other muttering, ‘Blimey, it’s bloody freezing! Isn’t it freezing? Too right.’ (p 66)
I am hunched, I think, trying to shrink into the fireplace, maybe hide in one of those snow globes of Sylvia’s. I am a Tasmanian devil, I am a fern, I am the water in the globe. (pp 179–80)
Withered trees hunch beside the pavement—they look like they’re having a collective last gasp in the heat. (p 297)
Activity: Identify the literary devices employed in these quotations.
4. Parts of the novel read like poems in a verse novel, for example:
I wish I could save the ocean . . . They should. (p 45) when Biz nearly drowns.
Grief feels like this . . . cover yourself with leaves. (pp 99–100)
A photograph of the house . . . (pp 324–5) is Stephen’s memory of his father’s death.
I am in a bed in a room in a pub . . . Dad? Dad? (pp 326–9) is Biz’s poem about her feelings for her dad.
Activity: Study these pieces of free verse and then write your own poem like these based on some of the themes in this novel.
5. Humour is another device used by this writer (in Biz’s voice). For example, Biz makes fun of the brochures offering classes, by exaggerating their titles (pp 111–2).
Discussion Point: What other examples of humour did you discover in this novel?
1. A writer creates a vivid setting often by investing it with human character, rather than describing a static picture.
Activity: This novel is set in Wollongong, NSW. Read Biz’s description of the town: I live with mum and the twins in Wollongong . . . The city is long like a finger. It was a steel town once. (p 10) Describe your hometown or suburb using such devices.
2. Place can be described, too, in a filmic or documentary way.
Discussion Point: Various other locations are described in filmic terms, for example, Biz’s first sight of her father’s old home: There are no lights . . . fading light. (p 308) Read this passage closely and discuss how it works and what literary devices it employs.
Activity: Draw a picture of what this description evokes.
3. Place is also evoked by description which appeals to all the senses.
Activity: Biz describes the interior of her dad’s childhood home: Dad got brought back here as a baby . . . in this house. (pp 312–3) Describe your own home using all your senses.
4. Contrast and dichotomy are useful in description too.
Activity: When Biz and Jasper arrive in Cootamundra they are struck by its difference
to Wollongong: It’s gigantic. There’s so much sky it’s hard to believe it’s not falling on us. There’s no escarpment here—just low hills and cars and houses and us. We’re baby ants squatting under an impossible blue. (p 284) Describe your home town in contrast to another city.
5. In setting a novel in a real place in contemporary time, a writer is confined by having to make descriptions as authentic as possible.
Discussion Point: What details regarding the towns of Temora or Wollongong, for example, would Helena Fox have had to authenticate?
At three in the morning when I can’t sleep, the room ticks over in the dark and all I have for company is the rush of words coming up fast like those racehorses you see on television, poor things, and when their hearts give out they are laid on the ground and shot dead behind a blue sheet.
At three a.m., I think of hearts. I think of candy hearts and carved-tree hearts and hummingbird hearts. I think of hearts in bodies and the rhythm inside us we don’t get to choose.
I lay my hand over mine. There it is.
It beatbeats beatbeatbeats skipsabeatbeatbeat
A heart is a mystery and not a mystery. It hides under ribs, pumping blood. You can pull it out, hold it in your hand.Squeeze. It wants what it wants. It can be made of gold, glass, stone. It can stop anytime.
People scratch hearts into benches, draw them onto fogged windows, tattoo them on their skin. Believe the story they tell themselves: that hearts are somehow bigger than muscle, that we are something more than an accidental arrangement of molecules, that we are pulled by a force greater than gravity, that love is anything more than a mess of nerve and impulse—
In the dark.
In my room.
I open my eyes, and Dad’s sitting on the edge of the bed.
“You need to stop,” he says.
What? I squint at him. He’s blurry.
“The thinking. I can hear it when you breathe.”
Dad’s wearing a gray sweatshirt. His hands are folded in his lap. He looks tired.
“You should sleep like you did when you were small,” he says. He looks away, smiles. “Your tiny fingers, tucked under your chin. There’s a photo . . .” Dad trails off.
Yeah, Dad. I’ve seen it.
“The one of us in hospital, after you were born—”
Yeah. The one just after Mum got her new blood and you fainted and they gave you orange juice. The one where Mum’s laughing up at the camera as I sleep in her arms. Yeah. I’ve seen it.
Dad smiles again. He reaches across to touch me, but of course he can’t.
That photo has been on every fridge door in every house I’ve ever lived in. It sits under a plumbing company magnet and beside a clip holding year-old receipts Mum can’t seem to throw away.
The photo was taken an hour after I came bulleting out of Mum so fast she had to have a transfusion. In the picture, I look like a slug and Dad looks flattened, like he’s seen a car accident. But Mum’s face is bright, open, happy.
All the other photos are in albums on our living room bookshelf, next to the non-working fireplace. The albums hold every picture of me Dad ever took until he died, and all the ones of me Mum took until smartphones came along and she stopped printing me onto paper. I’m now partly inside a frozen computer Mum keeps meaning to get fixed, and on an overcrowded iPhone she keeps meaning to download.
And I’m in the photos friends have taken when I’ve let them and the ones the twins have taken with their eyes since they were babies. I’m in the ocean I walk beside when I skip school and in the clouds where I imagine myself sometimes. And I’m in the look on my friend Grace’s face, a second after I kissed her, five seconds before she said she thought of me as a friend.
I blink. Dad’s gone again. The room is empty but for me, my bed, my walls, my thoughts, my things.
It’s what—four in the morning?
I have a physics test at eight.
My ribs hurt. Behind them, my heart beatbeats beatbeatbeats beatskipsabeat
My name is Elizabeth Martin Grey, but no one I love calls me that.
The Martin is for Dad’s dad who died in a farm accident when he was thirty and Dad was ten.
I was seven when Dad died. Which means I had less time with Dad alive than Dad had with his.
There’s never enough time. Actually, there’s too much and too little, in unequal parts. More than enough of time passing but not enough of the time passed.
Ratio of the time you want versus the time you get (a rough estimate)—
1 : 20,000.
Ratio of Dad’s time as the son of Martin : as the living father of Biz : as my dead dad, sitting on the edge of my bed telling me stories—
1 : 0.7 : ∞.
Monday morning, 7:30, and it’s so hot the house feels like it’s melting. Cicadas scream through the windows. The dog pants on the kitchen floor. I had a shower five minutes ago and already I’m sweating through my shirt.
“Ugh,” I say, flopping over the kitchen counter, crumpled uniform on, shoes untied.
Mum reads my face and sighs. She’s making breakfast for the twins. “Be grateful you get to have an education, Biz.” She waggles a spatula. “Not everyone’s as lucky.”
I peer at her. “You might have read me wrong, Mum. Maybe I meant, ‘Ugh. How I wish school lasted all weekend, I have missed it so very much.’ ”
I’m a month into Year 11, which is ridiculous because I am nano and unformed but I’m still supposed to write essays about Lenin and Richard III and urban sprawl. Year 11 is a big deal. We are only seconds away, the teachers say, from our final exams. The teachers can’t stop revving us up about our impending future.
This is a big deal! say the teachers of English, science, art, maths, music, geography, and Other Important Subjects in Which We Are Not Remotely Interested But Are Taking So We Can Get a Good Mark.
You need to take it seriously!
You need to be prepared!
You need to not freak out, then have to go to the counselor because we’ve freaked you out!
I open the fridge. “I’m going to sit in here, okay? Just for a minute. Let me squat next to the broccoli.”
Mum laughs. She’s making banana pancakes. Billie and Dart drool over their waiting plates. The twins have the morning off school. They’re going to the dentist! They love the dentist—it’s where Mum works, so they get extra toothbrushes, and as many little packs of floss and toothpaste as they can carry in their hands.
“Are they ready yet?” says my brother, Dart, six years old.
“Come on, Mum! I’m starving todeath,” says my sister, Billie, nineteen minutes younger than Dart.
“Give me a second,” says Mum. “A watched pancake never boils.”
She flips one over. It looks scorched. Mum doesn’t love cooking.
I can’t see how she can be anywhere near a stove in this heat. I grab some coconut yogurt and grapes out of the fridge.
“Did you study for your test?” Mum says.
“Absolutely,” I say, and it’s true, if you count watching YouTube videos and listening to music while reading the textbook studying. I don’t know if I’m ready—there’s the lack of sleep thing, and the not-having-spoken-properly-to-Grace-since-I-kissed-her thing, which makes today impossible and complicated before it even begins.
I hug Mum goodbye and smooch the twins’ cheeks as they squirm.
I grab my bike from the shed, ride it for thirty seconds before I realize the front tire is flat.
Ah, that’s right.
When did the tire go? Friday? No, Thursday.
Shit, Biz! You had one job.
A magpie laughs from a nearby tree. His magpie friend looks down, then joins in.
I could ask Mum to drive me but I know what she’d say: “Do I look like a taxi, Biz?”
I could skip school, but then I’d miss my test and ruin my impending future.
I shove the bike back in the shed. And start walking.
I live with Mum and the twins in Wollongong, in a blue-clad house on a street wallpapered with trees.
We moved here a couple of years ago, after moving to a lot of other places. We’re one and a half hours south of Sydney. The city is not too big, not too small; it’s just right for now, says Mum. The city sits beside the sea, under an escarpment. The sea pushes at the shore, shoving under rocks and dunes and lovers. Craggy cliffs lean over us, trying to read what we’ve written. The city is long like a finger. It was a steel town once.
There, that’s the tour.
When I was seven, Mum, Dad, and I lived up north, near Queensland—in the Australian jungle, Mum likes to say. She says the mosquitoes were full on, but I don’t remember them.
I remember frogs click-clacking at night in the creek at the bottom of the hill. The house was wooden; it had stilts. The backyard was a steep tangle of eucalypts and ferns and figs and shrubs.
You could see hills like women’s boobs all around. I’d wake up and hear kookaburras. Light would come in through my curtainless windows and lift me out of bed. I’d run in to Mum and Dad’s room and jump on them to wake them up.
I had a puppy. I called him Bumpy.
Our street is flat now. It goes past a park where I walk the dog and he sniffs the shit left by other dogs. I can walk to school in fifteen minutes or I can walk straight past it and go to the sea. Or, if I want to be a total rebel, I can go the opposite direction and in fifteen minutes end up in a rainforest, under a mountain, gathering leeches for my leech army.
On the walk to school, the cicadas keep me company. They scream from one huge gum tree to another. I pass the community center. I pass the park. I get to the end of the cul-de-sac and wait under the bleaching sun to cross the freeway.
Traffic bawls past. I can feel my skin frying. I can feel cancer pooling in my freckles. I can feel the road tar melting under my feet as I scurry across the road.
Past the freeway there’s a vet, a pub, and a train station. Every day I have to cross the train tracks to get to school. Every time I think,What if the signals are wrong, and a train comes out of the blue and hits me as I cross?
A woman walked against the signal once. Not here, but close enough it might as well be here. She was in a rush, they said; she ignored the ringing bells, the dropping barrier. She got halfway and thought better of it. She turned back. The train came.
Every time I cross the tracks, I think of her and try not to think of her.
I’ve traced and retraced her last moments in my head. I have googled her and I know the names of her family, the job she had, the music she listened to, and the last concert she saw before she died. I can feel the tightness of her skin when she saw the train, and how sweat sprang up a moment before the train hit—
and how our pupils widened
and turned my eyes to black
and in that infinite, molecular moment, I can’t remember if I meant to cross, or have paused on the tracks and am waiting here—
I turn my head. Dad’s walking beside me, barefoot, in his running shorts and KISS T-shirt.
“Do you remember your first train ride?”
No. I don’t remember that, Dad.
“It was a steam train. You were four. We went through a rainforest! We went really high up a mountain, and visited a butterfly sanctuary. And you flapped around like a monarch. You were beautiful.”
Is that right, Dad?
“You should flap around. Try it, Biz; it’ll shake off the frets.”
I look down. I’m over the train tracks and past the station. I’m on the path; it opens in front of me, green grass on both sides, the sun beaming.
I think of butterflies. I think of flying.
He’s gone by the time I reach the school gate.
I walk into physics just as Ms. Hastings is handing out our tests. Ms. Hastings gives me ayoung lady, you’re late look. I give her a tell me about it and have you noticed I’m swimming in a pool of sweat look. Ms. Hastings raises an eyebrow. I sit at my desk.
Ms. Hastings lays our tests facedown. She does the regular threats: “You must not look at anyone’s work!” and “Put away your phones!” and “Your time starts now.”
We flip our pages over.
Turns out, I am ready for the test. My brain fires up and the neurons make my hand move and the formulas come out like good little ponies at a show.
Most of my tests are fairly easy, which isn’t me boasting; it’s just a statement of fact. Mum says I might have a photographic memory, which is good for Mum because she often forgets her PIN numbers and passwords.
Mum could be right. All I have to do is look at something and it sticks. Sometimes, the image repeatrepeatrepeatrepeats, like a GIF I can’t turn off.
The room fills with the buzz of numbers.Pi scuttles over our papers, theorems talk to themselves. Ms. Hastings looks at her phone—probably at some friend skydiving or snorkeling in the Bahamas, while she’s trapped in here with us.
The bell rings.
“Time’s up!” calls Ms. Hastings. We hand in our tests. Next class is English.
I don’t chat or dawdle in the corridors; I slip between the crowds, a fish weaving. In fifty-five minutes I’ll have to speak to Grace.Just keep swimming, Biz.
Mr. Birch stands like a flamingo in front of the class, one foot scratching the back of his leg.
“Okay, everyone,” he says, “today we’ll be writing about the ego. That is, your alter ego. Consider your readings over the weekend, and the work of Plath in this context.”
A collective groan from all of us. We’ve done Plath now for three long weeks and no one is a fan. I mean, we all “feel” for her, but at this point we’ve read her and analyzed her and discussed her and it’s like peeling an onion until there’s no onion left.
“I want you to write a description of your alter ego, due at the end of the day,” Mr. Birch says, ignoring our protests. In case we don’t remember what he’s just said, he writes it on the whiteboard, his blue pen squeaking. He then sits at his chipped desk behind his PC, doing paperwork.
We hunker down to do the assignment. That is, some of us do the assignment; some of us daydream. The new boy pulls out a book and reads it behind his laptop screen.
Fans flick-flick above us. A trickle of sweat moves down between my boobs. I stare at my computer.
I don’t much like to write about myself. It’s not my thing, discussing any part of me. Over the years, Mum has suggested we go see people because Dad is dead, but then we put it off. I did sit with a man once, when I was seven and a half, in a room with yellow-painted walls and framed cat pictures. The man had round glasses like Harry Potter. He laid out paper and blunt coloring pencils and said to draw, so I did. Then he hummed and ha-ed and said, “I’ll just speak to your mum now, okay?” and when Mum came back out, her eyes were really red, so I didn’t draw for anyone else after that.
The cursor blinks on, off.
I take a breath, and dive in.
Some people call this time the gloaming, but I’d call it ‘the closest to how it feels to float’. And if someone wanted me to paint the feeling for them, I’d just put their hand on my chest, and say, ‘Here.’ (p 367)
Elizabeth (Biz) Martin Grey is in Year 11 and is floating through life. She is trying to manage the pressures of school, fit in with her friendship group, figure out her sexuality, and ignore her many dark, runaway thoughts, while never feeling quite ‘here’. Her dad Stephen, who died when she was seven, ‘appears’ to her constantly, reflecting on his memories of their family and sometimes offering her advice. Biz’s mum Laura works as a dental nurse to support Biz and her siblings, the twins Billie and Dart. Biz has recently kissed her best friend Grace and is curious about the new boy Jasper, which leads Biz
to question her sexuality. When Biz embarrasses herself at a beach party, the Posse she belongs to rejects her and Grace. Grace’s boyfriend, Suryan, dumps her, and in retaliation Grace drunkenly throws a rock through his window. Grace and Biz receive a police warning and are suspended from school, so Grace is sent away to live with her dad.
Biz’s father, whose visits have been an anchor to Biz and have provided comfort since she was small, also disappears. This, along with the events at school and the loss of Grace, plummet Biz into serious clinical depression.
Biz enters a time of being very unwell. The remainder of the novel travels with Biz as
she attempts to recover from her illness, build a friendship with the elderly Sylvia and Jasper (who turns out to be Sylvia’s grandson), deal with her increasing hallucinations, dissociative episodes and panic attacks, and embark on a literal and metaphorical journey to try and bring her father back.
This novel canvasses death and grief, depression and anxiety, dissociation and trauma, friendship and peer group pressure, sexuality, and moral choices. It questions community response to mental illness and the absolute necessity to have family support. It is a moving account of a girl trying to find the strength to live with a serious illness and a hard history, with the support of those who love her. It is a celebration of love and the power it has to transcend the saddest of moments and the most dire of circumstances. ‘How it feels to float’ is both a literal description of Biz’s dissociative experiences but also a metaphor –for keeping on, holding on to life and love when the current wants to pull you out to sea.