Helena Fox’s How it Feels to Float Is a Stunning Debut that Refuses to be Pinned Down

Just like its protagonist, Elizabeth “Biz” Grey, How It Feels to Float refuses to be categorized, which makes for a beautiful and truthful coming-of-age story, set in Australia. This is a book with zero interest in pretending everything’s okay. No, it wants something better for its lead character, and the readers who follow Biz’s heart-wrenching journey: the idea that even when things are not okay, life is still worth fighting for; still worth staying around for, to find out what will happen next.

The stories we tell ourselves—accurate or not—about our history, our relationships, and our value as people, influence our self-worth. But what if our problems are not born of experience or perception, but the DNA that lives inside us? Intergenerational mental illness is a double-diagnosis, a compounded one, because if you’re born with a predisposition toward depression or dissociative disorder, who will take care of you? The parent who also has those elements? The parent who doesn’t realize how badly things are spiraling out of control? If neither is equipped to handle the situation, what happens to the young person caught in the middle?

Biz’s first kiss is with her best friend, Grace, who loves her as a friend but doesn’t return her romantic feelings. (If they’re even romantic, which Biz isn’t sure about. She isn’t sure about a lot of things. “Am I bi? Gay? Am I something else? It makes my head fog to think about it.”) Post-kiss, however, Grace is preoccupied with pinning Biz down: “Grace’s project becomes ‘Solving the Conundrum That is Biz’s Sexuality.'”* Biz doesn’t want to be pinned down, and it becomes tiresome having to define herself, let alone on someone else’s timetable.

The new guy in school, Jasper, saves Biz from drowning during a campfire party at the beach, then refuses to speak to her afterward, allowing the other students to assume Biz and Jasper were in fact caught having sex. Making matters worse, when Biz and Grace are arrested for a juvenile prank that could’ve injured someone, Grace is sent away. Between that and a major freeze-out from the rest of her clique, Biz feels completely alone.

Underneath all this is the one true, solid fact of her existence, from which all other issues stem: Biz’s father has been dead for ten years. That’s not the real problem, though. The real problem is that while he may be dead, he hasn’t left; Biz sees and hears him everywhere, until one day, after the near-drowning incident, she doesn’t anymore—and she’s desperate to bring him back, whatever it takes. He has died twice, in a sense; the awful part for Biz isn’t that her favorite person in the world left her behind, it’s that his dead-self has abandoned her, too.

Biz’s father seems to have bequeathed to Biz his own dissociative disorder—the ability to, in times of stress, leave one’s body and watch what’s happening to “it” from far away—as well as his anxiety and depression, and Biz’s mother, no matter how loving she is, doesn’t grasp how deep the roots of that inheritance go.

Whenever Biz imagines confiding in her clinical psychologist about her dad, she knows she can’t possibly explain her situation: “So your father passed away?” she imagines the conversation going. “He’s dead? Oh, he’s only mostly dead? Not really dead? What’s that, he sits with you on the end of the bed at night and sometimes in the day? Is he here right now? Ah, he’s missing? He’s been gone how long? Is that hard for you, Elizabeth?”

A lovely, utterly nonjudgmental octogenarian, Sylvia, provides solace for Biz when the two meet in photography class. Soon, Sylvia is inviting Biz over for meals in her cottage by the sea, a dream you can reach out and touch: “beautiful, gauzy and unreal,” full of “sun-crusted” air. Sylvia’s “lips feel like paper butterflies” when she kisses Biz’s cheek in greeting. Her kindness is the joy and color Biz has been missing in her life: “She’s lit up with color, in her lilac scarf, her hair rinsed light blue, her yellow skirt printed with green lizards…and in a rush, I love her. It comes with a pang: bright, like a stab.”

Sylvia also happens to be Jasper’s grandmother, and eventually brings the teens together in the tight bond they were always meant to have. Biz and Jasper’s reset and second chance at friendship is one readers will find so breathtaking and precious they’ll want to cradle it in their hands to keep it safe. Turns out that together, Biz and Jasper are unstoppable.

I won’t spoil what happens next, except to say things gets much, much worse for Biz and her mental health before they can get better. But the journey is worth every moment of pain. Teens who don’t want to be labeled, who don’t conform to checklists of attributes or fall into tidy boxes, will relate hard to this book about how a girl who wants, very badly at times, to float away, but who ultimately finds herself in a book that’s full of life, resplendent with sensory details, lush descriptions, clever and witty narration, and a beating heart that will make yours swell with feeling.

How It Feels to Float hits shelves May 7, and is available for pre-order now.

*all quotes taken from an uncorrected proof

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