Reviewed by Victoria
Some of the most powerful stories about children and adolescents are the ones, like Lord of the Flies, that send chills down your spine. Make the children high school students, stranded in the fishbowl of a small town, throw in the might of social media and an updated Lord of the Flies is pretty much what you’ve got in Sarah Bannan’s startlingly good debut, Weightless. It’s essentially a morality tale about how the pack can turn, and a chilling exploration of the adolescent mind. I was completely gripped by it.
Adams High School in Adamsville, Alabama is portrayed as an average sort of place; for the high school students who’ve lived there all their lives, there’s not enough to do and so excitement must be generated through the ever reliable channels of gossip. Each year the Adams Hot List is updated online, featuring the cheerleaders and prom queens who have made the highest echelons of social ranking, and competition is both furtive and fierce. Everyone wants to be part of the beautiful people, but few can make the physical and social requirements. It’s a jungle of judgement out there, no prisoners taken, no punches pulled, just harsh, cold, relentless critique. Brooke Moore has toppled from her prime position because she’s put on weight over the summer (‘She’d probably go back to her pseudo-bulimia, we said to each other. Not enough self-control to be rexy’), melancholy Andrew Wright has recently lost his mother to cancer, which makes people wonder ‘if he realized that Taylor and Tiffany had told people over the summer that he “should get over himself”’, and when Miss Simpson tells the students not to invest so much emotionally in the Prom, ‘We knew what this was code for: she had never been to her prom, the fat lesbian.’
It’s a merciless world, and we readers share it from an unusual point of view, the ‘we’ of the voice of public opinion. There are girls behind it, specifically, three friends from swim team, who will never make it to the top of the herd, but are relieved to avoid the brutal politics that entails. Instead, they are safe watching and commenting and judging, and readers are ushered silently into their ranks.
So, this year, something, or rather someone, new has arrived; the usual round of picnics, parades and proms has fresh spice added by the new girl in town. Carolyn Lessing has moved from New Jersey and extensive perusal of her Facebook page provides the information that she has 1,075 friends, looks like a model, and has no relationship status. Carolyn turns out to be more than just a pretty face; she’s nice, too, warm and friendly and ready to help out. And then she’s good at her lessons, particularly gifted in art and English. Before long she’s dating Brook’s boyfriend (‘Texts went around. Brooke Moore has been DUMPED’) and her stock is rising high on the all-important social register.
But appearances can be deceiving: ‘Looking back, we wondered if it was so great for her that she was so talented,’ the narrative voices tell us. ‘When you’re new, and when you’re a girl, it’s not so good to be good at something. Better to be average, to be barely visible, to make yourself scarce. Carolyn never did that, though, never blended in.’ There were other problems too: Carolyn’s mother is a distant parent, and her father is a writer living far away. Carolyn is unusually thin when she arrives, and clearly a perfectionist. When the swimteam girls visit her at home, they sneak into her bathroom and photograph the evidence for Facebook and Instagram: a set of scales with her weight recorded daily on a graph nearby, expensive, desirable toiletries, and a pill case labelled Seroquel. And maybe none of that would have mattered if Carolyn had understood the way things worked in Adamsville, but instead she brought the ideology of a wealthy New Jersey school with her, and the result is a tragedy that anyone could have prevented, but no one did.
This is a brilliant book, a cool, scathing dissection of a society whose obsession with (social) media has caused it to privilege intrusive behaviour and ugly judgement. Writing about it, I fear making it sound more hysterical than it is to read. In fact, the Greek chorus of narrators lend an emotionally-distanced air, tinged with mild self-reproach, but their complete engagment with the drama taking place on the social Adamsville stage sweeps the reader along in its mesmeric grip. It’s beautifully written, and an almost anthropological study in the ways of the modern adolescent. Read it and be thankful you never have to go to High School again.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Sarah Bannan, Weightless (Bloomsbury: London, 2015) 978-1408856420, 352 pp., hardback.