Helena Fox’s debut “How It Feels to Float” is a young adult contemporary novel that packs a punch in under 400 pages. It currently sits at over 3,000 ratings with a 4.03 average star rating on Goodreads, and it even won the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. Fox portrays a teenage girl grappling with her surroundings, situations and self with a relatable yet complex voice that many reviewers, such as YouTuber Books With Chloe and author C.G. Drews, have praised. Although readers may not face the exact same experiences as the main character, her thoughts, feelings and reactions are real enough they can still find a piece of themselves in her.
“How It Feels to Float” follows teenager Elizabeth, or Biz, as she struggles with three major facets of her life: her dad’s death, her mental health after she suffers from a depressive spiral and her sexuality once she kisses and is rejected by her best friend Grace. The audience follows Biz as she pushes through these obstacles, whether that be by taking up a new hobby, going to therapy or making a few new unexpected friendships. The story is both heartbreaking and touching in a way that beautifully mimics the tragedies and joys of real life.
Handling Tough Topics
Considering that “How It Feels to Float” is an #ownvoices book that represents mental illness and sexuality, it only makes sense that Fox handles Biz’s gradual understanding of herself with the utmost care. Written from Biz’s point of view in the first person, the book allows the reader to learn about Biz as she learns about herself. The readers gain a deeper understanding of Biz as they experience her thought processes firsthand and unfiltered, and the rawness of her character is palpable as the story peels back all her layers, beginning with her grief and revelations about intergenerational trauma.
The book begins its conversation about grief in a digestible way, explaining on page 100, “You miss his voice. You miss her smile. You miss and miss and miss and miss and miss.” However, as the reader moves farther into the story, Biz’s grief reveals itself to be a bit more complex. An article from BookBrowse on “How It Feels to Float” explains how Biz always thought her relationship with her dad was different from her relationship with any of her other family members. It turns out there was a reason for her intuition, and Biz “is only able to move forward when she not only learns the truth about her father’s past, but about her own experiences with trauma as well.” Fox expertly shows her audience the complexity of grief in Biz’s singular character arc — a feat, considering how well-rounded and complete it feels alongside the other pieces of Biz’s character arc.
“How It Feels to Float” also addresses depression, the desperation to get better and the journey to the root of one’s problems. Fox’s poetic writing style enhances Biz’s experience of depression by making the reader feel like they’re floating alongside Biz. For example, on page 96, Fox writes, “I wait in bed. For time to pass. For life to stop being bad/worse/worst. For the thoughts to stop sauntering in.” The word “sauntering” appears frequently when Fox describes the intrusiveness of Biz’s depressive thoughts. Fox’s word choice here makes clear that those who have depression do not choose to be sad and that their thoughts are not easy to get rid of — an antithesis to the idea that people with depression could simply get over it if they wanted to.
The reader later learns Biz struggles with more than depression, but Fox never specifies her other diagnosis. In an interview, Fox explains, “From my lived experience, my conversations with others, and my research, I know it can take a while to settle on a mental health diagnosis. And even then, new discoveries can pop up in later years, as they have for me. I didn’t want to pin Biz to a mental health condition when she is only just stepping into an understanding of herself and her history.” Once again, Fox makes clear that mental illness is complex and can take years to figure out. By incorporating her own experiences into Biz, Fox tells a story that feels passionate and illuminates what it’s like to live with such confusion.
Family and Friendships
“How It Feels to Float” is unique in the young adult contemporary genre because of the emphasis it places on family and friendships alongside its arc concerning Biz’s sexuality. Perhaps the best part of Biz’s arc besides kissing her best friend Grace at the beginning of the book is that she’s not romantically involved with anybody; rather, her discoveries about her identity are more introspective. Additionally, just as Biz’s mental illness diagnosis is never revealed, her sexuality is never given a label. In the aforementioned interview, Fox says this is because “I think that’s very normal for many people—it can take a while (sometimes decades) to find the words for our sexuality. And even then, sexuality has a huge spectrum and is often quite fluid, so I wanted the book to touch on and honor that as well.”
Instead of a romantic partner, the most important people in Biz’s life turn out to be her mother, her little brother and sister, and her new best friend, Jasper. Biz expresses her love for her family vehemently throughout the book. She often describes how happy she was when her little siblings jumped on her bed to wake her up or when her mom was there to support her. These delights make Biz feel guilty over her depression, with her wondering on page 105, “Why are you so sad and empty when you have a house with walls and a roof and people who love you?” Such thoughts add another layer of complexity and realness to the representation of mental illness. However, Biz’s appreciation for her family and the bits of happiness they bring her throughout her journey are impossible not to notice, too.
Biz also finds happiness in Jasper. “How It Feels to Float” is a breath of fresh air in that it doesn’t force a romance between Biz and Jasper simply because they are a boy and a girl (a default of too many young adult contemporaries, especially when mental health is involved). An article from Electric Lit titled “We Need More Books Without Romance” explained the harm in novels “present[ing] love as necessary and central to flourishing.” Instead, the readers follow Biz and Jasper’s evolution to best friends. They aren’t dependent on each other, but they support each other when they need it, which is more than enough.
At its core, “How It Feels to Float” is a young adult contemporary novel with the potential to resonate with many teens, especially those grappling with their own grief, mental health and sexualities. Fox discusses all these important topics with great care and without the ideas feeling rushed or unnecessary. The novel also emphasizes the importance of healthy and supportive familial relationships and friendships. Some questions are left unanswered, and some facets of Biz’s life are never given labels. But that’s reminiscent of how confusing and random real life can be. Fox makes an incredible debut with “How It Feels to Float, and readers should eagerly await her next release.