The Weight of Him review: Sometimes heavy-handed examination of teen suicide
Ethel Ronan’s debut sees an overweight father trying to make sense of his son’s suicide
Ethel Rohan: An acclaimed short story writer, she has published two collections and received a nomination for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award
The Weight of Him
With its recent Netflix adaptation, Jay Asher’s young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why has returned to the bestseller lists over a decade after publication. As the title suggests, Asher’s novel focuses on the reasons why a teenage girl in small-town America decides to kill herself. In the wake of the tragedy, those left behind pore over Hannah Baker’s cassette tapes, trying to piece together her motivation for suicide.
The why becomes all important to friends and family although, as Ethel Rohan’s debut deftly explores, the reasons behind suicide are never fully understandable. Even when, as in Hannah’s case, they’re made explicit, the gap between someone who wants to live and someone who has lost that desire is hard to bridge.
This doesn’t stop Billy Brennan, the protagonist of The Weight of Him, from trying to make sense of his eldest son Michael’s suicide. While his wife Tricia wants to forget, Billy dredges through Michael’s possessions in the attic and analyses his son’s song lyrics for clues. He torments himself by replaying all the times he failed his son. The most vivid of these is a scene with Michael at the seaside as a child, where Billy lets go of his son as he’s learning how to swim in order to chase away a group of boys who have been taunting Billy about his weight.
In a neat twinning on the theme of self-destruction, Rohan makes obesity the other preoccupation of her debut, as “Big Billy” tips the 400lb mark in the weeks following the death of his son. It is a clever move that allows her to examine suicide not only from the perspective of a grieving father but also a man who is desperately struggling in his own right.
Afraid to take to the scales because “the number would feel like a sentence”, Billy decides to face his fears and lose half his body weight to raise awareness for suicide. The mission gives the novel good plot momentum as readers understand the effort it will take for him to succeed. Rohan ramps up the stakes by having Billy publicly declare his plans and seek support from the townspeople, colleagues and the country at large. We keep reading to see if Billy will complete his mission, but also, on a deeper level, to see if anything can truly be resolved after suicide.
Billy’s wife Tricia certainly doesn’t think so, and her anger at Billy for drawing further attention to the family with his plans is powerfully rendered by Rohan. Tricia is a weary wife and mother who is “done trying to figure out what people are and aren’t capable of”. Teenage son John’s contempt for his father is equally striking, as is Billy’s troubled relationship with his youngest son Ivor, whose weight issues offer a grim mirroring.
Parenthood is linked to failure, not only with Billy and his children but in the relationship Billy has with his own parents. Their disappointment in their son throughout his life is one of the defining factors of Billy’s low self-esteem. His mother’s reaction to his campaigning is typical of her attitude: “‘Glorifying what you shouldn’t be, that’s all you’re doing,’ his mother said, the bitterness coming off her like sparks.”
Little weighs easily in this debut and at times it is heavy-handed with its themes. Billy’s self-recrimination is understandable but can feel repetitive: “They had to be careful. They had to do a better job with the remaining three.” The novel’s jam-packed action is often accompanied by explanations: “Billy had failed. Again.” His weight loss efforts can also feel overdone as Billy frequently reminds us of exactly how little he’s had to eat. There is language at times that borders on brochure-speak – “Inistioge sat nestled in the Nore Valley and boasted the remains of a Norman castle and monastic priory” – and other clunky phrases such as the chipper “Seanseppe’s”, which admittedly may earn Rohan a few laughs from her American audience. Born and raised in Dublin, the author currently lives in San Francisco.
The Weight of Him was published in the US in February, where it was awarded the inaugural Plumeri Fellowship. An acclaimed short story writer, Rohan published two collections and received a nomination for this year’s Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award.
In her debut novel, she ensures our sympathies by making Billy’s odds almost insurmountable. He throws himself into a diet of protein shakes and boiled chicken; each time Billy suffers a setback, the allure of the takeaway calls: “Alone in the dark, he devoured the chips with shaky hands, each hot, succulent chunk gritty with salt and drenched with sharp vinegar.”
The psychology behind overeating is skilfully examined by Rohan, the fact that food can fill, if only momentarily, the awful void. After suicide, though, we come to understand that some voids will never be filled again.