Adamsville, Alabama is a hot and sweaty town. When we meet the lissom cheerleaders at Adams High, a fetid vapour rises as the story unfolds. Beneath the glossy hair, tanned skin, athletic figures, this vapour swirls and swoops without boundaries. A coterie of self-conscious teenagers narrate.
They are obsessed with thinness, skin tone, teeth and make-up. They idolise Gemma and Brooke, Tiffany and Taylor, who are going through their paces at the pep rally. The cheerleaders are the queens and princesses to the chorus's ladies-in-waiting. While the quarterback, Shane Duggan is an Adonis. When a new girl arrives, the narrators are absorbed with the minutiae of perfection.
Weightless is the debut novel of Sarah Bannan, who moved to Ireland from America fifteen years ago. She attended high school in Alabama. She has based her research on the tragedy of the Irish schoolgirl, Phoebe Prince, and South Hadley High.
Carolyn Lessing has moved to town from New Jersey, which is sufficiently foreign to Adamsville to render her an object of awe and envy. She is not only beautiful and intelligent, but genuinely friendly.
She wears just the right amount of foundation and the kind of clothes you can't buy in Adamsville. She even has her own skates. Low-tops. But she has scars on her arms. To some, her arrival is unbearable. To the chorus she is a high priestess tinged with tragic heroine.
The chorus are never in the limelight; as in a Greek tragedy, they portend doom. There are resonances with Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. Instead of the old men, there is Nicole, Lauren and Jessica, who hide behind their hair. They are the apologists, who record Carolyn's every graceful move and every touch, look, kiss between her and the school idol, Shane.
The students have been together since kindergarten. Parents, teachers and coaches have also attended the school. They go to Baptist church twice a week. It is a community that has never had to check itself; a place you are born in, and stay in, not a place you come to.
Carolyn lives with her mother, who moved to Adamsville to take up a 'big job', they live in a big, designer-house. She is an only child. Her mother is rarely at home, it is an uncomfortable reflection on single working mothers.
From the cheerful weightlessness of the hot-air balloon festival, where the narrators float beneath colourful orbs, to the bulimic battle with weightlessness, the book contrasts the beauty of appearances with the ugliness of bullying.
Social media in the hands of teenagers gives them the power to communicate and to abuse. In a heart-breaking series of photos, videos and messages using Instagram, texting, Facebook, YouTube, the cheerleaders manipulate the truth in their quest for dominance and vengeance.
Bannan exposes the easy potential for cyber-bullying at this vulnerable age and points to the lack of attention paid by teachers and, worse, parents, in responding to the signs. The cyber bully and the school bully is a perennial phenomenon, the novel portrays the girl bullies as vicious, while 'jock' culture is also prevalent. The boys, all swagger and heft, by doing nothing, are ultimate hypocrites.
With acute attention to detail and a deeply convincing voice, Sarah Bannan traces deceit and hatred, rage and revenge, as it encircles the hearts and minds of unchecked youth. Weightless is a book I would recommend to parents and their teenage children; at its core is a subject that demands to be confronted.
Bloomsbury Circus (hardback), €19.50
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie
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