Life! Death! Prizes! By Stephen May

Big brother is watching over you

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The Independent Culture

The title of Stephen May's second novel relates to the USP of magazines trading in human misery by revelling in real-life traumas. Nineteen-year-old Billy narrates, reflecting that events in his life would be at home in their pages, following his mother's death after a tussle with a mugger. Billy, on a gap-year before university, is determined to care for his half-brother, six-year-old Oscar, on his own, but his aunt and Oscar's biological father disagree.

May is an adept chameleon: his first novel won the Wales Book of the Year prize even though May isn't Welsh, and here, his teenage voice is similarly convincing. The topic would have been ripe for sentimentality, but May wisely avoids it, and Billy's narration is funny, irreverent and disarmingly – sometimes callously – honest: at his mother's funeral, Billy muses that photos of her beaming make her look "mad. It makes me wonder if she wasn't ... retarded." Repelled by others' cloying concern, Billy shudders: "We're going to overdose on sympathy ... we could ... get emotional diabetes." When a classmate of Oscar's is cast as a Christmas pudding in a play, Billy mulls that this, "together with her parents' painful and messily imminent divorce, should ensure ... severe anorexia".

The star of this book is Oscar, whose charm and courage shine through the darkest days. May avoids first-person narration by Oscar, which is fortunate since the bar has been set so high by authors such as Emma Donoghue in Room and Grace McCleen in The Land of Decoration. Instead, Oscar's vulnerability is depicted through his behaviour – social withdrawal at school, playing up at a party. One of the most poignant scenes is when Oscar babbles to his mother's ashes. In his sleep, he murmurs for her.

May adroitly conveys a teenager in denial. Despite Billy's assurances to well-meaning others that he's coping, the reader glimpses signs of disarray – Oscar's thinness, their diet of takeaways and adult movies. Billy is obsessed with his mother's mugger, surmising that the latter's childhood must have been abusive; hallucinating images of him. Billy's love for Oscar is apparent in his devotion and the imaginative ways he finds to amuse him.

Negative points are few: it's implausible that Billy's love interest wears face and tongue studs at work, and that Billy's mother died from a head injury caused by a fall from ground height with no blows or kicks. The simple prose makes it intellectually undemanding, but it's a touching story about love, loyalty and tragedy.