Modesty has just stripped off all its clothes and gone skinny-dipping. I much prefer to swim in a bathing suit. Or even to be wheeled down to the sea in a little changing caravan. But in this age of shrinking marketing budgets and overworked publicity staff, sometimes writers have to be bare-faced, bare-legged, and take the leap. Shyness – so retro, right?
I’m grateful to Barbara Larson for permission to post her response to the book here.
Billy Bird launch speech: Barbara Larson, 31 August, 2016
There’s a poem in Emma’s book Tender Machines – many of you here will know it – it’s called ‘Stoic’ and starts with:
‘We couldn’t cry about love
because you just have to get on with it
and of course there were the children.’
And it continues: ‘We couldn’t cry about a lot of things…’
When I first heard Emma read this startling and magnificent poem, and later read it for myself, I thought, wow, therein lies a novel.
And Billy Bird may just be that novel.
Billy Bird is at once familiar territory. The main characters, Iris and Liam, are young and hopeful and invite us into a story full of love and promise. They have a child they call Billy, and begin to live life dominated by the small boy, as one does. But then, as so often happens, life sideswipes them and suddenly they have another child to raise. An older boy – he’s all of six – and they lovingly embrace the child – he doesn’t make it easy – and for a while, it all looks as if things are going to be okay. Not perfect but okay.
Then the inexplicable happens causing this small, fragile family to fray at the seams. Iris becomes overly anxious, Liam withdraws into his man cave, and Billy, dear Billy, escapes the only way he knows how.
The novel is a brilliant and imaginative leap into a world where life is altered by forces outside our control, of being different, of being Billy, of learning to cope with enormous loss and the often dark gaping spaces that open between us.
Billy is an original. (Emma he’s truly a wonderful character).
He’s at once adorable, and alarmingly articulate, and smart, and inventive, yet also loud and disorderly and he can instantly turn himself into an expertly-drawn ratbag of a kid. He feels his grief deeply, finds his parents difficult to understand; no make that impossible to understand, and with terrifying passion can channel his anger and confusion and energy into Billy Bird.
Billy Bird’s behavior is disruptive and shambolic. He squawks and stomps and shouts and escapes into an avian culture completely of his own making, spending time in trees, trying to fly, wanting to eat like a bird … you get the picture.
All of this is very upsetting and disturbing for everyone but especially for his parents, of course, who can barely hold themselves together. Theirs is the classic situation. Both need a great deal from each other but neither is able to oblige. Iris’s ‘overthinking’ and cleaning mania drives her into an isolated place, and Liam literally takes off every chance he gets. They desperately need help.
The novel is a delicate and exceptional exploration of what it means to be a parent, a member of a family, of being married. The slight nuances and shifts in everyday occurrences are documented with electrical accuracy. So much so, that we experience the profound isolation of each member of Billy’s family, as well as their struggle towards finding some semblance of what they once had.
Emma cleverly draws on several writing styles and forms throughout this novel but always with just the right touch. She’s never intrusive nor contrived; and her genius – that of astonishingly fresh images and playful, inventive language – delights on all fronts.
I love Billy Bird for its honesty, its intelligence, its glorious exuberance. I first read the book in page proof form while overseas and when I returned home the physical novel arrived and I started to read it again – the second time with even more admiration for the writer of such a splendid story.
Congratulations to Penguin Random House for producing such a handsome book and to Abe Baillie for his apt and quirky cover illustration.
And congratulations to you, Emma. Billy Bird is masterly.
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