Life! Death! Prizes! By Stephen May
Big brother is watching over you
Sunday 13 May 2012
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.
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
The battle for control of Stieg Larsson's £30m legacy
Arts & Ents blogs
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 2 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 3 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- 4 Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
- 5 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- < Previous
- Next >