Billy Bird by Emma Neale (Vintage, 2016), 330pp, $38
Grief is the emotion that throws all others into relief, stripping away ego and pretentions. Novels that revolve around grief are not rare. But what Emma Neale has managed to produce in her Ockham Awards shortlisted novel, Billy Bird, certainly is: an often witty, frequently whimsical, domestic novel about a family whose pain is pulling them apart.
Iris and Liam have a son, Billy. They are a normal Kiwi family, which is to say that as they go about their lives things happen that are not only unforeseen but unforeseeable. One such event has befallen Iris, Liam and Billy, an event so catastrophic that it has sent a crack through the centre of their family, and all three are teetering on its edge. But then, ‘life’, as Neale puts it, ‘pours back in, with all its dear and dreary dailyness’. Billy Bird explores the measures that ordinary people take when, despite everything, lives must continue to be gone about.
So it is through the minutiae of domestic life that Neale covers arguably the greatest universal themes there are – love and loss, life and death – played out on the quarter-acre sections of suburban New Zealand.
For Liam, turmoil will follow turmoil. Even as the nuclear blast of grief hits, Liam, a casualty of the latest round of redundancies at TVNZ, is planning to move the family from Auckland to Dunedin, where he and his friend will run an adventure tourism business. Iris, fretfully uncertain, finds herself ‘without an appetite to argue’, leaving Liam, who is experiencing a loss-induced call to carpe diem, to plough forward, pulling his wife and son with him. Once south, Liam throws himself into the business of kayaking, paddle-boarding and white-water rafting, apt vehicles for displacing his internal upheaval. Meanwhile, fashion-designer Iris is blocked, her inability to stitch her family back together translating into her work. Instead she obsessively cleans and sorts the new house as Liam edges further and further away from her, and Billy – well, Billy turns into a bird.
A precociously intelligent eight-year-old possessed of a ‘theasuarine’ vocabulary, Billy’s retreat is into learning, and specifically learning about birds. We are offered a few reasons for this, some of them biographical and linked to his loss, but it doesn’t really matter. Birds become the object of his interest and rapidly his obsession. The more he learns about birds, the more he knows about birds, the more bird-like Billy becomes, until eventually he is behaving as if he were, indeed, a bird. This is no mere metaphor. Faced with parents unable to deal with their own grief, let alone that of their son (‘“What an unsophisticated tool a human is,’ Iris mulls at one point, ‘for raising other humans’”), Billy chooses the uncomplicated freedom of flight. There is also the fact that, as Billy points out to his father early in the book, birds ‘experience time more slowly than we do’. In his fantasies Billy sees the world from a great height, and it is this distance that allows him, more than any other character, to process his feelings. ‘Sometimes, he just had to talk and talk to drain off the noise in his head. Sometimes he just had to run and jump and flick and shake.’
His parents, however, don’t see it that way. What they see is a boy who chooses hopping over walking, whose preferred meal is nuts and seeds, who has a tendency to build grass nests on the back porch and whose odd behaviour draws the attention of school authorities. This of course conveniently allows Iris and Liam a distraction from their own healing. In a classic irony of parenting, they are so focused on fixing their child that they forget to fix themselves, and it is of course their brokenness that has in large part caused their son’s.
Billy is the undeniable star of this novel. Neale, herself a parent, has clearly mined her own children’s speech and actions in building the character. As an eight-year-old going through tumultuous changes, Billy is not only entirely plausible but eminently likeable in all his quirkiness. Iris is another compelling character, the responsibility that she feels to keep her family together ringing painfully true. For most of the novel Iris is something of a martyr, but earns our sympathy because – like most mothers, perhaps – she doesn’t realise she is. Any parent can see themselves in the moment when Iris ‘pretended, for Billy’s sake, that the world wasn’t burning. That her veins weren’t, for who knows what reason exactly, carrying the lava of despair and fear.’
Far less of the book is told from Liam’s perspective, and both this fact and the perception of him that we build through Billy and Iris’s eyes make him a more distant character. Floundering, unable to face his emotions, Liam has no time for Billy’s ‘bird act’ and escapes into work and short-temperedness. This character can border on cliché, but is nonetheless quite believable.
The three characters drive Billy Bird’s action, particularly the first two-thirds. Neale has set the novel in the months following the 2011 Canterbury earthquake, and following the family’s shift to Dunedin the possibility of further quakes preys on the minds of particularly Iris and Billy, the aftershock metaphor neatly successful but never overstated. Neale’s writing is lyrically beautiful. A poet, she originally envisioned Billy Bird as a verse novel, and vestiges of its origins sparkle off the page (on raising a child: ‘Does he know the suits in a pack of cards, or where’s Nigeria and what’s bacteria, can he swim, who will drive him there, and does he know how much we care?’). The narrative cuts between short domestic scenes and longer set-pieces, and is well-paced and engaging.
Billy Bird loses some of its traction in the third act. Despite all of the character work she puts into the first part of the book, Neale doesn’t allow Liam, Iris and Billy to find resolution by themselves. Instead – and it has to be said that this is certainly the most realistic scenario – she packs them all off to therapy. All of a sudden, Neale’s research starts to show on the page; where the earlier parts of the book are driven by emotion, and particularly by those beautiful and brutal little shocks of emotion that strike parents and spouses at random moments, the therapy scenes feel stagier and more self-conscious. It is clear from the outset that all of the characters are going to need to have some kind of an epiphany (this is a book about grief, after all), but it’s slightly disappointing that this should come from such a calculated source. Putting them under the care of a competent professional makes it almost too easy. In his first session, Billy is already remarking: ‘This place was weird. It made him say things he wanted to snatch back and hide.’ These things need to be said – for Billy, for the book. But to have him come to that realisation and to say those things outside of the carefully constructed unit of his family feels a let-down, a shame, and the book’s denouement is less satisfying as a result.
That said, however, the resolution when it comes is a sweet one. Iris and Liam are not necessarily completely cured of their problems – sometimes, Billy notes, ‘they said marriage the way Dad said tax or warrant of fitness’ – but they are finding a way back to each other. Billy’s interest in birds persists but the Billy that the reader has come to love shines through. The family is not, as he fears at one point, going to live ‘saddestly ever after’.
But will they live happily ever after? Probably not. Does anyone? Billy Bird is not, after all, a book of high drama or of fairytales. It is about real people experiencing real emotions in real ways. A quiet, domestic novel about the greatest subject there is.
EMILY BROOKES is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and a former editor of Salient. Her reviews have appeared in the Dominion Post, the Listener and the Times Literary Supplement.