If heartfelt contemporary YA is your preferred genre, you’re going to want to add Helena Fox’s upcoming debut, How It Feels to Float, to your 2019 TBR immediately. The book, which hits shelves on May 7, is being described as a modern-day The Bell Jar due to its honest, nuanced portrayal of grief and life with mental illness. Bustle has the exclusive cover reveal and an excerpt from the book below.
How It Feels To Float follows teenaged Biz, who is floating through life after her father’s death. Biz still sees her dad everywhere: he tells her about the little kid she was, and how much he loves her. But Biz doesn’t tell anyone about her dad. She doesn’t tell them about her dark, runaway thoughts, either, or about kissing Grace and noticing Jasper, the new boy. Biz knows how to float, right there on the surface. But after something happens on the beach, Biz comes undones Her dad disappears, and with him, all her comfort.
If you aren’t already convinced that How It Feels To Float sounds like a mesmerizing and timely debut, check out an excerpt from the book below. You’ll have to wait until May 2019 to pick this one up, but something tells me it will be more than worth the wait.
‘How It Feels To Float’ by Helena Fox
At three in the morning when I can’t sleep, the room ticks over in the dark and all I have for company is the rush of words coming up fast like those racehorses you see on television, poor things, and when their hearts give out they are laid on the ground and shot dead behind a blue sheet.
At three a.m., I think of hearts. I think of candy hearts and carved-tree hearts and hummingbird hearts. I think of hearts in bodies and the rhythm inside us we don’t get to choose.
I lay my hand over mine. There it is.
It beatbeats beatbeatbeats skipsabeatbeatbeat
A heart is a mystery and not a mystery. It hides under ribs, pumping blood. You can pull it out, hold it in your hand. Squeeze. It wants what it wants. It can be made of gold, glass, stone. It can stop anytime.
People scratch hearts into benches, draw them onto fogged windows, tattoo them on their skin. Believe the story they tell themselves: that hearts are somehow bigger than muscle, that we are something more than an accidental arrangement of molecules, that we are pulled by a force greater than gravity, that love is anything more than a mess of nerve and impulse —
In the dark.
In my room.
I open my eyes, and Dad’s sitting on the edge of the bed.
“You need to stop,” he says.
What? I squint at him. He’s blurry.
“The thinking. I can hear it when you breathe.”
Dad’s wearing a gray sweatshirt. His hands are folded in his lap. He looks tired.
“You should sleep like you did when you were small,” he says. He looks away, smiles. “Your tiny fingers, tucked under your chin. There’s a photo. . .” Dad trails off.
Yeah, Dad. I’ve seen it.
“The one of us in hospital, after you were born —”
Yeah. The one just after Mum got her new blood and you fainted and they gave you orange juice. The one where Mum’s laughing up at the camera as I sleep in her arms. Yeah. I’ve seen it.
Dad smiles again. He reaches across to touch me, but of course he can’t.
That photo has been on every fridge door in every house I’ve ever lived in. It sits under a plumbing company magnet and beside a clip holding year-old receipts Mum can’t seem to throw away.
The photo was taken an hour after I came bulleting out of Mum so fast she had to have a transfusion. In the picture, I look like a slug and Dad looks flattened, like he’s seen a car accident. But Mum’s face is bright, open, happy.
All the other photos are in albums on our living room bookshelf, next to the non-working fireplace. The albums hold every picture of me Dad ever took until he died, and all the ones of me Mum took until smartphones came along and she stopped printing me onto paper. I’m now partly inside a frozen computer Mum keeps meaning to get fixed, and on an overcrowded iPhone she keeps meaning to download.
And I’m in the photos friends have taken when I’ve let them and the ones the twins have taken with their eyes since they were babies. I’m in the ocean I walk beside when I skip school and in the clouds where I imagine myself sometimes. And I’m in the look on my friend Grace’s face, a second after I kissed her, five seconds before she said she thought of me as a friend.
I blink. Dad’s gone again. The room is empty but for me, my bed, my walls, my thoughts, my things.
It’s what — four in the morning?
I have a physics test at eight.
My ribs hurt. Behind them, my heart beatbeats beatbeatbeats beatskipsabeat
My name is Elizabeth Martin Grey, but no one I love calls me that.
The Martin is for Dad’s dad who died in a farm accident when he was thirty and Dad was ten.
I was seven when Dad died. Which means I had less time with Dad alive than Dad had with his.
There’s never enough time. Actually, there’s too much and too little, in unequal parts. More than enough of time passing but not enough of the time passed.
Ratio of the time you want versus the time you get (a rough estimate)—
Ratio of Dad’s time as the son of Martin : as the living father of Biz : as my dead dad, sitting on the edge of my bed telling me stories —
1: 0.7: ∞.
Monday morning, seven thirty, and it’s so hot the house feels like it’s melting. Cicadas scream through the windows. The dog pants on the kitchen floor. I had a shower five minutes ago and already I’m sweating through my shirt.
“Ugh,” I say, flopping over the kitchen counter, crumpled uniform on, shoes untied.
Mum reads my face and sighs. She’s making breakfast for the twins. “Be grateful you get to have an education, Biz.” She waggles a spatula. “Not everyone’s as lucky.”
I peer at her. “You might have read me wrong, Mum. Maybe I meant, ‘Ugh. How I wish school lasted all weekend, I have missed it so very much.’ ”
I’m a month into Year 11, which is ridiculous because I am nano and unformed but I’m still supposed to write essays about Lenin and Richard III and urban sprawl. Year 11 is a big deal. We are only seconds away, the teachers say, from our final exams. The teachers can’t stop revving us up about our impending future.
This is a big deal! say the teachers of English, science, art, maths, music, geography, and Other Important Subjects in Which We Are Not Remotely Interested But Are Taking So We Can Get a Good Mark.
You need to take it seriously!
You need to be prepared!
You need to not freak out, then have to go to the counselor because we’ve freaked you out!
I open the fridge. “I’m going to sit in here, okay? Just for a minute. Let me squat next to the broccoli.”
Mum laughs. She’s making banana pancakes. Billie and Dart drool over their waiting plates. The twins have the morning off school. They’re going to the dentist! They love the dentist — it’s where Mum works, so they get extra toothbrushes, and as many little packs of floss and toothpaste as they can carry in their hands.
“Are they ready yet?” says my brother, Dart, six years old.
“Come on, Mum! I’m starving to death,” says my sister, Billie, nineteen minutes younger than Dart.
“Give me a second,” says Mum. “A watched pancake never boils.”
She flips one over. It looks scorched. Mum doesn’t love cooking.
I can’t see how she can be anywhere near a stove in this heat. I grab some coconut yogurt and grapes out of the fridge.
“Did you study for your test?” Mum says.
“Absolutely,” I say, and it’s true, if you count watching YouTube videos and listening to music while reading the textbook studying. I don’t know if I’m ready — there’s the lack of sleep thing, and the not-having-spoken-properly-to-Grace-since-I-kissed-her thing, which makes today impossible and complicated before it even begins.
I hug Mum goodbye and smooch the twins’ cheeks as they squirm.
I grab my bike from the shed, ride it for thirty seconds before I realize the front tire is flat.
Ah, that’s right.
When did the tire go? Friday? No, Thursday.
Shit, Biz! You had one job.
A magpie laughs from a nearby tree. His magpie friend looks down, then joins in.
I could ask Mum to drive me but I know what she’d say: “Do I look like a taxi, Biz?”
I could skip school, but then I’d miss my test and ruin my impending future.
I shove the bike back in the shed. And start walking.
I live with Mum and the twins in Wollongong, in a blue-clad house on a street wallpapered with trees.
We moved here a couple of years ago, after moving to a lot of other places. We’re one and a half hours south of Sydney. The city is not too big, not too small; it’s just right for now, says Mum. The city sits beside the sea, under an escarpment. The sea pushes at the shore, shoving under rocks and dunes and lovers. Craggy cliffs lean over us, trying to read what we’ve written. The city is long like a finger. It was a steel town once.
There, that’s the tour.
When I was seven, Mum, Dad, and I lived up north, near Queensland —in the Australian jungle, Mum likes to say. She says the mosquitoes were full on, but I don’t remember them.
I remember frogs click-clacking at night in the creek at the bottom of the hill. The house was wooden; it had stilts. The backyard was a steep tangle of eucalypts and ferns and figs and shrubs.
You could see hills like women’s boobs all around. I’d wake up and hear kookaburras. Light would come in through my curtainless windows and lift me out of bed. I’d run in to Mum and Dad’s room and jump on them to wake them up.
I had a puppy. I called him Bumpy.
Our street is flat now. It goes past a park where I walk the dog and he sniffs the shit left by other dogs. I can walk to school in fifteen minutes or I can walk straight past it and go to the sea. Or, if I want to be a total rebel, I can go the opposite direction and in fifteen minutes end up in a rainforest, under a mountain, gathering leeches for my leech army.
On the walk to school, the cicadas keep me company. They scream from one huge gum tree to another. I pass the community center. I pass the park. I get to the end of the cul-de-sac and wait under the bleaching sun to cross the freeway.
Traffic bawls past. I can feel my skin frying. I can feel cancer pooling in my freckles. I can feel the road tar melting under my feet as I scurry across the road.
Past the freeway there’s a vet, a pub, and a train station. Every day I have to cross the train tracks to get to school. Every time I think, What if the signals are wrong, and a train comes out of the blue and hits me as I cross?
A woman walked against the signal once. Not here, but close enough it might as well be here. She was in a rush, they said; she ignored the ringing bells, the dropping barrier. She got halfway and thought better of it. She turned back. The train came.
Every time I cross the tracks, I think of her and try not to think of her.
I’ve traced and retraced her last moments in my head. I have googled her and I know the names of her family, the job she had, the music she listened to, and the last concert she saw before she died. I can feel the tightness of her skin when she saw the train, and how sweat sprang up a moment before the train hit —
and how our pupils widened
and turned my eyes to black
and in that infinite, molecular moment, I can’t remember if I meant to cross, or have paused on the tracks and am waiting here —
I turn my head. Dad’s walking beside me, barefoot, in his running shorts and KISS T-shirt.
“Do you remember your first train ride?”
No. I don’t remember that, Dad.
“It was a steam train. You were four. We went through a rainforest! We went really high up a mountain, and visited a butterfly sanctuary. And you flapped around like a monarch. You were beautiful.”
Is that right, Dad?
“You should flap around. Try it, Biz; it’ll shake off the frets.”
I look down. I’m over the train tracks and past the station. I’m on the path; it opens in front of me, green grass on both sides, the sun beaming.
I think of butterflies. I think of flying.
He’s gone by the time I reach the school gate.
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