I wanted variety in my Fiction Hot Picks for 2012 and this book is certainly different, even down to the way it made it onto the list. Most of the novels are included because I’d heard the author’s agent/editor raving about them, which they are after all paid to do; thanks to their good judgement I haven’t had a single disappointment. But I actually received a tip-off about this one. Was I planning to include Life! Death! Prizes! a second novel by Stephen May? I was asked. There could only be one answer at that point as I hadn’t heard of him or the book, but with a title as brilliant as that…
Bizarrely, it didn’t register with me at the time that I was choosing two books on the subject of loss. The other was The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, one of the authors I most admire, and I recently read them back to back. I won’t review The Beginner’s Goodbye because it is very short (albeit perfectly formed) – it’s not my favourite Anne Tyler novel, but it is beautiful, quirky and all the things that keep her readers coming back for more, it’s just that I don’t have that much to say about it.
Life! Death! Prizes! is a different story – I have a lot to say and I imagine other people will too. It tells how Billy, a 19 year old on a gap year, copes as sole carer of his 6 year old half-brother Oscar after the death of their single mother Suzanne in a botched street robbery. Everyone has a view about who should care for Oscar: his aunt, the absent father who’s never given a damn, social services, but nobody wants the job like Billy does. Most of the novel is his first person narrative; here’s a taste of it from the opening chapter at the funeral:
None of that funeral-as-celebration-of-life bollocks today. No party dresses. No paper hats. No Hawaiian shirts […] Flick through the pages of the trauma porn mags, and you’ll soon find a kid being buried in the QPR away kit, or a girl going into the underworld in a tutu. Or an old guy buried with his golf clubs, his car keys or his Northern Soul records: a kind of council estate pharaoh, proving that you can take it with you.
[…] But funerals aren’t for the dead. The dead don’t give a fuck. No, funerals are totally for the living.
Although the story is interspersed with short scenes from the perspective of Suzanne’s killer written in the third person, it was the character of Billy that drew me in. The two boys muddle along in domestic chaos – takeaway meals, late nights, dodgy films – hardly a healthy environment for any 6 year old, let alone a little boy who’s just lost his mum, but the one thing he does have is his brother’s love and it seems to go a long way. Oscar is heartbreakingly loyal, vulnerable and brave, and Billy is unusually responsible and wise beyond his years (he’s also holding down a job at the local museum before leaving to study Social History at university) – that is, when he’s not being a selfish, reckless, furious teenager intent on avenging his mother’s death.
The voice of Billy is what makes this novel and it’s down to the quality of Stephen May’s writing, which absolutely crackles with emotional honesty. I think the best way I can describe it is ‘fearless’. If you want immediate proof, take a look at his latest blogpost on unplanned fatherhood, Sugar Baby Love at www.thesecondbesttime.blogspot.com, which also sheds light on how he succeeds in getting inside the head of a very young man forced to deal with life’s serious issues too soon. It hurts to write about loss and it has to be authentic. (I tried it in one of my first posts on this site, The Time We Had: 20 years later, I remember my Dad.) I found May’s portrayal of the way grief cuts a before/after line through lives moving and painfully real.
For all its strengths, I think this novel has the potential to really divide opinion and some will hate it. If you look to reading for escapism, beware. Billy’s obsession with the sensational news rags you see at supermarket checkouts (hence the exclamatory title) and his attempts to comfort himself with tragedies even more senseless and awful than his own, makes for pretty bleak and upsetting reading in places and that is equally true of the sorry life story of the perpetrator. The same applies if you’re easily offended – I’m not, but there were still a few scenes I found objectionable or borderline gratuitous, but these things are very subjective. Yes, it can be crude and it’s certainly very male (obviously) but the toughness is balanced throughout by Billy’s wry and funny observations on everything from the state of society (he has a lot to say about that) to the lyrics of ABBA. It’s genuinely thought-provoking and I can imagine bookgroups having a field day arguing about it. There’s an essential tenderness and humanity which, against all the odds, make Life! Death! Prizes! a life-affirming read.
In different ways, this novel reminds me of Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas and Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman, without actually being like them. That’s right, a Booker winner (2003) and two from the short-lists (2010 and 2011). Life! and Death! are a given, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Stephen May also gets Prizes!