20 Books of Summer #3 & #4: Young protagonists

What a Way To Go by Julia Forster

I couldn’t resist the cover of this book – it was the ghetto blaster (as we called boomboxes then) on the front and cassette tapes on the back that took me right back to around 1979 when I bought one with my holiday job pay from the staff shop at the Mullards factory (owned by Philips). This novel is set a decade later though when cassettes were in their dying days…

It’s 1988. Harper Richardson is 12, and lives in the Midlands with her mum who got custody of her and the car when her parents divorced. Her dad got the damp cottage and every other weekend with his daughter.  Naturally, Harper wants both her parents to be happy, but that doesn’t mean getting them back together.

Us kids left behind in the wreckage of a broken home cope by creating two cut-out versions of ourselves: one for each parent. At Mum’s I watch four hours of telly a day, read trashy novels and speak my mind. At Dad’s, I watch my Ps and Qs, digest facts and toe the line.

While her mum looks at dating ads, her dad goes to ‘Lone Rangers’ a single parents’ club – it’s here that Harper gets her first experience of boys when she meets Craig, who likes her oddballness.  When Harper gets back from her dads one weekend, she finds her mum and her friend talking about Kit – a chocolate salesman – the latest potential boyfriend (after her bank manager didn’t work out). Soon, Kit will move in as a lodger, but his full history will take some time to be teased out. Meanwhile, Harper really takes to him, especially after he buys her two gerbils, one of which is albino.

The tone of this debut novel with its sparky young protagonist is humorous with bittersweet moments. Harper, for all her wise-cracking, is an innocent, obsessed with Smash Hits and Top of the Pops, the late 1980s are captured well.  However, the highs and lows are few and far between, and generally not very high nor low.  The characters, for all their loveableness, were a bit ordinary. I did like Harper though, and this book was a fun and quick diversion to read.  (7/10)

Source: Own copy.   Julia Forster, What a Way To Go (Atlantic, 2016), paperback, 304 pages. BUY at Amazon UK (Affiliate link)

Weightless by Sarah Bannan

This novel was a rather different kettle of fish. I bought it a few years ago after Victoria reviewed it for Shiny (here) and interviewed the author (here).

Weightless is the story of one year at Adams High School in Adamsville, Alabama. This was the year that a new girl joined the school – Carolyn Lessing came from New Jersey, and was so unlike the other pupils that everyone wanted to know all about her. It begins, however, before Carolyn arrives, with the cheerleaders tryout – and a group of girls are watching from the bleachers…

We watched as Brooke Moore moved to the center, now fully in the shade.
Brooke’s eyes were so brown they were nearly black, and she wore white eyeliner that made them pop – we could see that even from where we were sitting. […] When she started to cheer, you could hear the murmuring start, the speculation from the guys and the girls, and maybe even from some of the parents, the alumni scattered around us.
“Baby got back.”
“That’s at least ten pounds.”
“Fifteen, easy.”
“She went on the Pill.”
“I think she looks better.”
“You’re such a liar.”
“Y’all be nice”
“Just saying.”
“Summer of Twinkies”
“Summer of sex.”
“Shut up.”
The uniform was two sizes too small, that much was for sure, and we heard later that her mother had bought it as a kind of motivation for her to drop the weight. {…Brooke was still beautiful, this much we knew.

This tells you everything about the environment that Carolyn will find herself in.  Everyone is judgemental, everyone knows everything about everyone else. When Carolyn arrives, a model student from a posh school in the north – they fall over themselves to be her friend. But it’s when she usurps Brooke at the top of the Adam’s Hot List anonymous blog that the rot sets in, compounded when she starts dating Brooke’s boyfriend. Fascination will turn to victimisation and tragedy.

Cheerleading is such an American thing, and the extremes that the girls go to to maintain their fitness – this is something that Megan Abbot wrote about brilliantly in her novel Dare Me (reviewed here), but cheerleading is a minor note in this novel. It’s the bullying of Carolyn, done in modern style through social media, something Irish author Louise O’Neill covered in shocking detail in her YA novel Asking For It (reviewed here) that is at the crux of things.

This is all brought into focus by the entire book being narrated by a group of girls in the third person plural, like a Greek chorus observing events from the sidelines. Done well, as in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (reviewed here), a novel which I adored, this method of narration is extremely effective in delivering commentary and observations on a story all bound up with a knowing sense of fate.  Bannan, another debut author, has nailed it. The fact that the chorus, bystanders all, could have broken ranks to intervene before it all went wrong offers a chilling judgement on the misplaced morals of this community.  I shall look forward to reading whatever Bannan writes next, for this novel was superb! (10/10).

Source: Own copy.    Sarah Bannan, Weightless (Bloomsbury, 2015), paperback 352 pages.  BUY at Amazon UK (affiliate link)

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