Billy's Halo, by Ruth McKernan

Life imitates science to prove that even boffins have feelings too
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The Independent Culture

Part memoir, part popular science, Billy's Halo is an intriguingly original venture. Ruth McKernan tells the story of her father's life and death, laced with her own emotional journey. She injects into the narrative chunks of cutting-edge bioscience: beginner's guides to everything from memory and consciousness to stem cells, bacterial infections and drug design. "If life imitates anything," she argues, "it's science, not art. So now I tell our story through... scientific themes, like pearls strung together on the thread of my father's life".

If Billy's Halo fits uneasily into publishing pigeonholes, its author is equally unconventional. Married with two young children, she works as a research scientist for a pharmaceutical company. She has set out to become a writer as well, via courses and a Royal Society Media Fellowship that found her writing award-winning columns for The Independent. The result is a style that is vivid and easy to read, though at times a mite over-egged.

After a slow start, the story begins to grip as her father is rushed to hospital in Cambridge with what turns out to be life-threatening septicaemia - a bacterial infection run riot, acquired via a trivial scratch under one eye. Against the odds, Billy recovers, only to succumb, a few months later, to leukaemia.

Her account of his time in hospital is easily the most engaging part. Here, the excursions into science genuinely augment the story-line by explaining, for instance, how a streptococcal infection ("the Julie Burchill of bacteria") can end in fatal toxic shock, and how the medical treatments Billy receives work to keep him alive. Elsewhere, the blend is less successful. Episodes of family history repeatedly act as springboards into dollops of popular science, but sometimes the leap feels precipitous, the transition forced.

At times, McKernan herself seems ambivalent about the relevance of all that research. She says that science doesn't really explain, for instance, Billy's love of his native Scotland, "hard-wired into his brain", nor his fearsome determination to build a successful manufacturing business in chemicals. Nor, as she stresses, does knowing about science, about how the brain works, help her cope with her deep distress in the wake of her father's illness and death.

Perhaps what she really wants to show in writing this book is that even boffins have feelings, and perhaps that's more than enough for now.