Tuesday 19 November 2019

Horrors of teen bullying in cyber era without the frivolous elements of 'Gossip Girl'

Weightless; Sarah Bannan; Bloomsbury, hdbk, 352p, €15.99

Author Sarah Bannan
Author Sarah Bannan

Edel Coffey

Teen bullying is nothing new but the facility of teen bullying has changed. Through social networking, chat boards, blogs and texting, victims are more accessible than ever. And that's before we mention the standards of fashion, beauty and thinness that have intensified for girls.

Sarah Bannan's debut novel sets itself up in this rich terrain and unravels like a mystery. When Carolyn Lessing - beautiful, thin, sophisticated, friendly - moves to Alabama, the class is obsessed with finding out all about her. Nobody ever moves to small-town Alabama, particularly not sophisticated Yankees. When Carolyn turns up on the first day of school with the football quarterback, the cheerleader Brooke's nose is put out of joint and she begins a campaign to put Carolyn in her place.

The campaign includes all the usual Mean Girls insults - that Carolyn is a slut, that she has an STD, that she is sleeping with more than one guy... There's a Gossip Girl element to the book too with a blog that spreads gossip and rumours about the pupils. While Mean Girls and Gossip Girl both have comedic elements in their description of the jungle that is American high school, Weightless takes away that frivolity and focuses on the basic horror of being the victim of a bullying campaign.

The story is gently let out, told in the first-person plural voice, the 'we' of a group of classmates whose story is tinged with guilt and remorse. We don't know yet what they are guilty of or sorry for but the hints are revealed slowly and we have to wait until the bitter end to find out what really happened.

If I had one criticism, it would be that the story was spun out for too long before letting the reader know what actually happened. I'm all for suspense but it verged on frustrating when every chapter ended with an ominous suggestion of what was still to come.

Despite my frustration, I was gripped throughout, and regularly appalled at the seemingly endless capacity of teenagers to make each other's lives miserable, and even more appalled at the capacity of a school and a community to sit back passively and watch young people's lives be destroyed.

The writing is clear and beautiful, and Bannan's knowledge of American high schools and teen culture is pitch perfect (Bannan, who is head of literature at the Arts Council, grew up in New York before moving to Ireland in 2000). A compelling and chilling look at the modern culture of bullying with very few solutions offered.

Available with free P&P on kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

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