BOOK REVIEW / In the eyes of the fox: 'Billy' - Albert French: Minerva, 5.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
IT TAKES a leap of the imagination to write a novel in a dialect that is not your own. A few years ago Albert French, a photographer from Pittsburgh, switched on his TV just in time to see the end of a documentary about a 10-year-old boy who was executed for murder in the Deep South in 1937. He wanted to know the full story, but couldn't find any record of the case in the history books, so he decided to make up his own version of events. The result deserves to be read for its extraordinary voice. A mixture of slang and poetry incorporates the rich accents of the Mississippi badlands, and somehow gives the tale the force of allegory.

The story is, in its way, familiar: at first, it seems like a miracle to the people of Banes County that anybody can tolerate the limited and still racially defined life of the Patch, where the black families live. Only 10-year-old Billy Lee Turner feels he needs to escape: perhaps that is why he goes to the pond in search of catfish. After he stabs Lori Pasko, a 15-year-old white girl, in self-defence, the Patch no longer seems miraculous. There is no escape from the pain of bigotry.

The plot moves inexorably from Lori's death to Billy's trial to the electric chair. The author wades into his ultimately tragic material with enormous gusto but he manages to avoid the pitfalls of child's-eye fiction: Billy is neither cutely nave nor wise beyond his years. Limpid and unsentimental, the book doesn't condescend to its hero.

In the background are the usual loudmouths and rednecks baying for the child's blood - 'Where's that knifin nigger? Where's that bastard?' - but French does not restrict his sympathy to Billy and the black folks. The bewilderment of the Pasko family is painstakingly described as it comes face to face with the unnerving spectacle of inhumanity legalised in the name of justice. In spite of the bleak subject, optimism emerges as the chief virtue, so that any measure of kindness, order, forbearance or skill becomes heroic, a bit of sensibility or perception eked out in the struggle for survival.

Most terrifying are the final scenes on Death Row when, glancing at one another or meeting the eyes of a hostile stranger, Billy and the other condemned prisoners catch glimpses of their true selves. This is a harrowing odyssey - it has the quality of a foxhunt seen through the eyes of a fox. Yet the honesty of the tale and the art of its telling make the novel seem like a gift. The reader is honoured to witness the small miracle of its compassion.