Billy Bird by Emma Neale.
Auckland: Penguin Random House (2016).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Emma Neale is an accomplished writer of a number of poetry collections, an anthology editor of poetry and short stories and Billy Bird is her sixth novel, extracts of which won the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship Award.
In chapter one, ‘The how do we begin?’, Liam and Iris conceive a child as a result of their first sexual encounter, and after their ‘Just Very Good Friends’ friendship of four years:
‘It was after a mutual friend’s wedding, where the optimism and openness in the bespoke wedding vows, the free champagne glowing in the warm summer air, the sweet idealism and the lusty baselines in the DJ’s playlist meant that Liam and Iris finally fell over the line between friendship and more-than-into-bed.’ (p 9)
In this short introduction we shift from prose to a tender but frankly amusing poem about Billy’s actual conception. The scene is set: here is writing skill, a sense of enjoyment in changing from the expected literary mode, a humour and lightness in the risk-taking.
Billy is born and a few years later the family is joined by Liam’s orphaned nephew. The boys are quirky, fun and exhausting; their parents swerve, as parents do, from pride, amusement and delight to exhaustion and financial worries. But suddenly there’s a terrible accident and the resulting desperate grief threatens to destroy the family unit. We follow Iris, Liam and Billy as they deal with their huge tragedy, each in their own way. Lest you think this sounds like a tale of woe, it is more an endearing, poignant, frank and insightful account of a family which slowly begins to regain its previous equilibrium, however sometimes madcap that may have been. In particular, we watch Billy grow up, grow through. It leaves this reviewer considering again the questions: “What is normal? And, anyway, “Who says so?”
Billy Bird is a story of family and communication, about the ordinary (made to be extra-ordinary by fine writing), the vulnerability and preciousness of relationships and the quirkiness of an intelligent, imaginative young Billy as he submerges himself into his avian persona. For example, when Iris follows Billy to his bedroom one evening she finds Billy ‘perched on his haunches in the dark on the bed, his arm curled up as far over his head as he could reach, his eyes screwed shut. He was cooing to himself; a tune Iris half-recognised … ‘Cooo ooo ooo ooo ooo Cooo ooo ooo ooo ooo.’ … He refused to move – and so she heaved him over onto his side, pulled the blankets up as best she could; tucked him in. He played deaf all the way: either pretending he was asleep, or that he was so locked into bird-hood that the words of a human mother couldn’t penetrate.’ (p 175)
There’s a perky atmosphere through the beginning chapters of the book. Its playful approach brings smiles of recognition to a parent; after tragedy strikes, there are adult anxieties the reader easily relates to, and deep fondness for the characters as they grow. As Iris says: ‘But you had to hold on. You had to take deep breaths and play, ‘We can manage this’, and face it, for the children.’ (p 20)
Like a murmuration of starlings the book darts and swerves delightfully and unexpectedly at times. Narrative, poetry, lists, simple illustrations, quirky chapter headings, imaginative bird language and even a play script all combine to transport a beautiful, believable story with energy, sensitivity and life. Character development is clever – we get to know how Iris, Liam and Billy think; highly amusing aspects of the everyday are brought into focus with an acute eye for detail – personalities are accentuated with this and the brilliant dialogue:
‘RAARK, RAARK, CHIP-CHIP, TWEEETATIT, tweetatit, sweedle, sweedle, drrrh, drrrh!’
“Oh Christ,’ Liam said, from his side of the bed, face dawn-creased, as Billy trilled, super-sized cuckoo, from outside in his tree hut. ‘What’s our strategy now?’
‘Just humour him,’ said Iris, arm crooked over her face.
‘That’s a strategy?’ Liam shuffled closer, hand slipping between her knees, resting there, a warm flesh question mark.
With Billy awake? ‘Nnnuh-uh,’ she said.’ (p 121)
In the chapter headed “This marriage is bigger than both of us” (p 275), Brandy, Iris’ friend and confidante, lightens some heavy drama with her word-mangling dialogue. For the briefest moment, I felt the integrity of the story may be under threat. But hang on a minute – isn’t this story about individual expression? The point is made that acceptance of others’ different ways of communicating, and patience, is the very key to good relationships. And Brandy is honest and well aware that ‘You think you’d get smarter as you get older but you just don’t.’ (p 285)
I highly recommend this most readable, delightful book. It is, as the judges for the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship said, ‘inventive, joyful and beautifully written’. And, from its cover onwards, it’s beautifully designed.
First published takahe 89
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.