In P. J. Harvey’s lyrical masterpiece, “We Float”, the act of floating is languorous, a way of drifting in the moment, taking “life as it comes”. In Helena Fox’s debut novel, floating becomes more of a necessity: it might feel “incandescent”, but it’s a cloak that protects the 17-year-old narrator, Biz, from dark forces that shadow her family life and sabotage her pact with reality.
Fox’s experience as a creative writing teacher for young people infuses every word in How It Feels to Float. Biz’s voice is captivating and crystal clear, even in its rendering of confronting topics such as the family legacy of suicide, trauma and mental illness. Biz’s capacity for perception, humour and empathy, especially while inhabiting the strange worlds and words of adults, seems boundless.
Fox uses a variety of narrative and visual devices to access Biz’s interior life and the way she communicates. Biz may be an unreliable narrator, but her motives are always understandable in light of the grief she carries. The innovative use of emojis in text messages with her maybe-boyfriend, Jasper; the italicised thoughts she may or may not be sharing aloud with her best friend, Grace; the lingering conversations with her father, who hovers just out of reach – these draw the reader in to a complex account of vulnerability, in this girl with a deep desire to love.
When Biz finally gets to the place where she feels she has lost everything, she discovers photography through the gentle hands of Sylvia, a grandmother in her 80s. Here, Fox cleverly uses photography to capture memories, often literally. The characters, the places, the ghosts all speak out of the images, directly to Biz. They offer clues to what’s been hidden: family secrets, shame and loss.
There are surprising light patches too: the surging sea with the power to give as well as take away, the freedom of riding on the back of Jasper’s motorbike. Biz’s young siblings – twins – are hilariously drawn, all zigzag and noise and glittery love as they pounce on Biz’s bed every morning.
It is a testament to Helena Fox’s immense skill as a writer that all the disparate elements come together seamlessly in an intense, intimate portrait of a teenage girl. Like Biz in the darkroom, the author dodges and burns, keeping her characters moving, exposing them to the light.
Pan, 384pp, $17.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 27, 2019 as "Helena Fox, How It Feels to Float".
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