Sunday, 29 March 2020

Sick Bay


Sick Bay by Nova Weetman (UQP) PB RRP $16.95 ISBN: 978 0 7022 6032 2

Reviewed by Nikki M Heath

Two girls. One sick bay. Will the neglected outcast reach through the defences of the cool kid living with type 1 diabetes? Can the popular girl bring the introvert out of hiding? What happens when a complicated home life and a cast of adults ranging from well-meaning to ignorant to absent are layered into the mix?

In the final year of primary school, Meg is doing what she needs to do to handle life after her father’s death with a depressed mother. She takes care of herself as best she can but refuses to let anyone help. Meanwhile, Riley is rebelling against the restrictions imposed by her overprotective mother as they begin to impact on her social life.

In a novel alternating between two first-person main protagonists, it feels unfair to have a favourite. Nevertheless, the character of Meg is a stand-out. She faces an intensely difficult life outside of school, but still manages to maintain a firm sense of self. She tugs heartstrings from the intriguing first line of the book: “My best friend is a brown paper bag that has a slight crease in the corner”. Yet, for all her hiding in sick bay, over the course of the book her strength emerges and creates the perfect underdog for the reader to cheer on.

Riley is a contrast. She finds herself entangled in a “mean girls” clique while struggling with her type 1 diabetes and anxious mother. In the early chapters, she is painted as cruel and shallow, but Weetman does a clever job of introducing complexity and doubt into her character, enough to rouse interest – and sympathy – in the reader. We are invited to put ourselves in Riley’s shoes, and while her troubles with friends and parents seem trivial compared to the neglect facing Meg, those issues gain greater depth in the context of her medical condition.

The book will be an education for anyone unfamiliar with the daily reality of type 1 diabetes. It also uses Meg’s story to explore, in a gentle way, grief, poverty, depression and neglect. Weetman delivers a powerful child’s perspective, drawing us gradually into Meg’s world, although it is worth noting that readers who have experiences echoing Meg’s may need support.

In many ways the overall arc feels familiar: a misfit with her troupe of amusing and kind fellows is thrown up against the cool kid who has secret misgivings about her unpleasant friends. There’s even a cinematic graduation scene at the climax. And yet, there is purpose underlying the trope: it provides a framework allowing the confronting themes to play out with emotional resonance against a recognisable backdrop. This is no simple school-ground friendship drama. This is a story of real-life stakes and authentic crises, delivered in an accessible package.

Although this novel has a female-heavy cast, the girls’ experiences are universal. Boys as well as girls will benefit from understanding her story, as well as Riley’s condition. An important book for all 10 to 13-year olds.

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