BookBrowse Reviews How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox

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How It Feels to Float

by Helena Fox

How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox X
How It Feels to Float by Helena Fox
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  • First Published:
    May 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2020, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Michelle Anya Anjirbag
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A heartbreaking, compelling look at grief and trauma and, ultimately, hope, as told through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old girl searching for answers.

Even though Biz's dad has been dead for ten years, he constantly visits her and tells stories about the life they used to have. These visits are a secret – not something Biz shares with her mother, her posse, or her best friend Grace – and she tries to be normal, okay, and regular. She's trying to just float on the surface. But things get stormy, and as her life at school begins to drag her under, floating becomes harder, if not impossible. When Biz and Grace get into trouble and Grace gets pulled out of school, Biz falls further into the depths of mental illness and has to learn to find her way forward toward some kind of future by learning about the parallels between her and her father, and the tether that holds them together.

Biz's search for normalcy seems, at first, like that of any other teenager trying to fit in at school and figure out who she is. But in the process of navigating a host of events – a kiss with Grace that isn't reciprocated, being rescued from the ocean by the new kid Jasper, and an incident on the beach that destroys her friendship circle at school and ultimately sets off a downward spiral that she cannot control – Biz's grasp on reality seems to fray, and instead of floating, she starts to drown in her thoughts, with only her father's appearances seeming to give her hope. Placed directly in her stream of consciousness, readers are immersed in her hopes, fears, despair, and contradictions, experiencing a closeness to the narrative that is sure to evoke empathy.

The novel is focalized through Biz's limited first-person perspective, which has very particular effects on the construction of the narrative. She is, in every way, an unreliable narrator because her own grasp on her surroundings, on the flow of time, and on her own reality is so tenuous. And yet it is exactly this open unreliability and uncertainty that allows readers to bridge the distance between themselves and Biz and not only empathize with her but trust her ability to tell us how she is feeling, even when those feelings are largely about being lost in her own mind. The other side of this closeness, however, is that few details beyond her own perspective are fully fleshed out. We do not see full portrayals of other characters; rather, they are mediated and thereby flattened through Biz's narrowed and flawed perspective. As such, the assumption is that most other characters default to white and, for the most part, straight, cisgender, and able-bodied unless explicitly otherwise stated. This one-dimensionality is saved by the tightness of the scope of the narrative, however, as it serves to again focalize readers as experiencing the world mediated by Biz, a mediation which ultimately allows the book's deeper messages about living with mental health concerns to be communicated.

This story is an incredible, lyrical journey through a teenager's struggle with undiagnosed mental health issues and the hereditary or intergenerational effects of trauma. Readers will be moved not only to empathy, but perhaps a real understanding through being enveloped in Biz's mind. They will be forced to confront their preconceptions of what it might mean to be either strong or fragile and what defines mental health, as well as face the idea that being "normal" or "okay" or "fine" is something that all of us have a tenuous hold on at best. And at the end of it all, they just might know... How It Feels to Float.

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in May 2019, and has been updated for the May 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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