Book Review: Billy Bird, by Emma Neale

“…If sex can accidentally make something as wild, complex, erratic, dogged, miraculous, sensitive, vulnerable, solid, unaware, bizarre, intractable, awful and joyful as a human child, why, in a specific instance, couldn’t it be said to help make love?”

cv_billy_birdThis is the voice of somebody who understands children, and parenthood. Billy Bird is a magnificent book. It’s sad, and happy, and funny, and brutal – and paradigm-breaking. As you will already know if you have read the blurb, or indeed the title: Billy is becoming a bird. He doesn’t want to be a bird, he is starting to behave as one would, for hours sometimes. This story is about how a family operates emotionally – and how important communication is when it is time to heal.

This is the point where I wonder – how much of a spoiler is it to say somebody significant dies? I think I can say that, and possibly that that somebody is a child. Because I get a bit sensitive around the death of a child, so if this is something you do not like to read about, here is your warning. But yet. Even if you do, and it triggers, this book may be the book that starts your healing. So don’t be shy of it. I will go just one step further and say: this is not a murder mystery. But you could probably tell that from the marked lack of black and red on the cover.

So this happens, and nothing changes. Well, not quite. Everything changes. But it takes awhile for their emotional power to be understood by our protagonists, who as we start driving towards the solution, are Billy, aged 8 or so, and his mum Iris and dad Liam. Iris’s voice: “Maybe…death had turned up her sensitivity to these things: The daily news-alarms of storms, acidic seas, dwindling species, drought, energy wars, religious wars, civil wars, avenging blood with blood, as if that ever brought the dead back…This sense of the world on the precipice…was it worse than it had ever been, or was she losing her own equilibrium?”

After events in the novel come to a head, the family finds a safe space to talk, with a Psychologist and her nurse. Billy is wondering about his dad “…if he’d be like that when he was a man. Did he have to be? What if you didn’t want to be like your mum or your dad? Was there some third person he could be?” The space created by his mum and dad’s non-communication fills with a pile of worries, big and small; and a lot of bird-feelings for Billy.

I’ve used a lot of quotes in this review, because there were so many times when I thought ‘Exactly!’ and ‘man how can I explain what this writing does to you.’ Writing this wonderful is unusual and rare, though it sometimes happens when poets turn to prose. There are sections of the novel in verse – the initial sex scene, ingeniously –and this adds an otherworldly brilliance to the writing.

I know of Emma Neale as an excellent editor: now I am going to go back and read everything else Emma Neale has written. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Like all truly good books, it fills you with empathy, and a sense of joy in words and in life. I hope this makes it onto the longlist for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Billy Bird
by Emma Neale
Published by Vintage NZ
ISBN 9780143770053

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