Strangers in a familiar world: growing up through grief in Nova Weetman's Sick Bay
“Dad used to keep everything working in the house, so now he is gone, if things break down they stay broken down. A bit like Mum really.”
Sick bay. The words themselves are enough to bring back memories of an almost-mythic place, a world between worlds in that strange space tacked on to the staffroom or the reception area where, through the strange power of a migraine or an asthma attack, suddenly you were privy to the mysterious inner workings of the school. There, aided by the near-delirium of fever or nausea, you somehow got to exist beyond the usual rote participation of school life and instead were elevated to the role of observer, an almost invisible watcher of the well-oiled machine that functioned from Monday to Friday in a way which you had never considered up until now.
Or perhaps that’s just me.
And perhaps that’s why the title of Nova Weetman’s latest middle grade novel was all the catalyst I needed for a sudden rush of nostalgia and fifth-grade feeling. It’s a feeling that stayed with me throughout my reading, for Sick Bay captures all that it means to be a stranger in a familiar world, teetering on the edge of teenagerhood but not quite ready to jump in.
This dual narrative focusses on girls nearing the end of their primary school years. Riley, a type 1 diabetic with an anxious mother, is desperate to be given more responsibility, to handle her diet and insulin requirements without her mum watching closely at every moment. Meg, on the other hand, is drowning under the burden of too much responsibility. Her mum moves mainly from the couch to bed and back again, and Meg can’t tell anyone that the reason she keeps wearing her slippers to school is because her mum hasn’t bought her any new shoes.
Sick bay is the one place where Meg feels safe at school. There, she is free to be herself, away from stares and whispers and the fickleness of lost friendships. Her anxiety – and her trusty companion, the brown paper breathing bag – provide Meg’s all-season ticket to the little room with the poster of the healthy eating pyramid and the possibly very germy bed. But when new girl Riley ends up in sick bay, too, Meg’s tiny kingdom of calm is overturned. She’s forced to engage with a girl who fits in everywhere and is welcomed by the kids who think cool and cruel are synonymous. It’s the last thing Meg needs piled on to her slight shoulders.
Sick Bay is a delight, and it will break your heart. There’s something true and authentic in Nova Weetman’s writing, and that sensibility shines through here. Meg and Riley are richly-characterised, three-dimensional girls, the kind of girls we know, are, or once were. Weetman shows them grappling with growing up, grief, belonging, and identity, and she does it all in a way that feels deeply honest and yet never despairing. This story does not shy away from frank discussions about death or mental illness or bullying, but it does so with a gentle hand, through the voice of two earnest characters, and never becomes the dreaded Novel About Issues. Instead, it’s about the hope, intensity, and weightiness of girlhood friendships, and their great power to heal. I loved it.
Published June 2019 by UQP Books