Sunday 22 October 2017

A father's struggle to cast off the dead weight of grief

Fiction: The Weight of Him, Ethel Rohan, Atlantic Books, pbk, 324 pages, €12.74

The Weight of Him
The Weight of Him

Eilis O'Hanlon

Billy Brennan is fat. He's also just lost his eldest son, Michael, to suicide. His wife has turned for solace to coffee, cigarettes, sleeping pills and Catholicism. Billy has retreated into eating even more food, despite being told that people in mourning commonly lose weight. "He wasn't even getting grief right," as he observes dolefully.

Billy decides that he's going to lose half of his 400lb weight, both to save his family from "another premature funeral", but also to raise awareness about teenage suicide. He desperately needs his wife, Tricia, to believe that he can really do it this time, but she says she's "done trying to figure out what people are and aren't capable of".

So Billy goes it alone. He blames himself for Michael's death, for not being a good enough father and husband. This is his chance to put things right.

That's the premise of Ethel Rohan's debut novel, though the Irish-born, US-based author has published two collections of short stories previously. Her speciality is to mine poignancy from small domestic situations.

In The Weight of Him, that technique is expanded into longer form, following Billy on his journey to unexpected celebrity, as he organises a march through his local village alongside other bereaved parents, becoming the spokesman for their pain and loss.

Things don't always go to plan. Typical of tabloid journalists in the pages of fiction, the reporter to whom Billy tells his story exploits it under the headline "Massive Man Hopes To Halve Himself In Son's Memory", while the film producer to whom he pitches the idea of a documentary about suicide wants to go for sensationalism, too, promising to deliver "one mother of a film".

These elements ring less true. Billy's story is more touching when it stays closest to home - when it focuses on Billy, in fact. Other characters remain thinly sketched; the character of Tricia is disappointingly underdeveloped.

But Rohan gets right under the skin of Billy, who refuses to be deterred from his new mission: "Never had he felt so fired up. So fierce." Slowly, he starts to break down the barriers between himself and his family. There are no simple cures, but there is hope, progress.

The author is particularly adept at understanding the psychology of obesity. How hard it is to walk through a world where the sights and smells of food constantly assail the senses. How eating momentarily dulls misery. The way in which Billy is "hiding inside his massiveness", and how torn his feelings are when his body starts to shrink, leaving him exposed: "It was terrifying to let all that go. To unbury himself and let himself be seen."

The Weight of Him is less convincing in its exploration of suicide. There is one penetrating insight near the end of the book, when Billy realises that those who take their own lives "don't leave us. They're leaving themselves". Nonetheless, that subject has been explored better elsewhere.

The theme of obesity struggles to fill a whole novel, but it's definitely more fertile territory. The only danger is that writing so vividly about Billy's disgust with his own "sagging flesh" and "walls of fat" reinforces the sense of fatness as repulsive. Such a grotesque portrayal of their plight can't be easy reading for those struggling with weight issues.

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