Saturday 13 May 2017


With the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards announcement just around the corner, and with our melee just behind us, at VOLUME we have been keeping up with the finalists.
Added to STELLA's reading of the Acorn Fiction Prize - three of the four sorted - this week is Emma Neale’s Billy Bird. Emma Neale’s latest novel looks at trauma and its effect on a family. At the heart of this family is Billy, a thoughtful and intelligent young boy who desires to be a bird, as if becoming a bird will right all the wrongs that surround Jase. When Billy is two his cousin becomes part of the small nuclear family, after Jase’s parents die. For Billy and his parents, Liam and Iris, this begins a period of readjustment, acceptance and coping. For Billy, he has an almost-brother, one who becomes increasingly important to him. Fire ahead six years to a day of showing off and a terrible accident and all is thrown into chaos. Will Liam and Iris be able to save their marriage and stop their destructive patterns heightened by grief and loss?  Will Billy find a way to cope with his parents’ despair as well as his own feelings of guilt and sadness? Neale has created characters that will resonate with many. Liam is trying hard to make the most of things by battling through and attempting to look to the future, but keeping his grief under control leads to frustration and a realisation that there are some things you can’t keep running from. Iris, always wanting to be the perfect parent, rides herself hard, to the point of being unable to struggle through the day without feeling emotionally and physically drained. When Billy’s bird-like antics threaten his safety, Iris and Liam have to face each other and the grief that has been tightly controlled. Neale weaves humour, understanding and sentiment into this tale about family and loss, but at times, although thoughtful, it feels a little contrived.
Another fiction contender dealing with the human condition is Owen Marshall’s Love as a Stranger. The premise is good. Sarah, in Auckland with her ill husband, meets Hartley on one of her many walks. Understandably, a friendship begins and then blooms into a love affair.  Sarah’s husband is preoccupied with treatment, hospital and assessing his life, sorting the archives and photographs, leaving Sarah lonely and vulnerable. Hartley, who is slowly revealed to us, is a broken man and his new-found friendship becomes increasingly important to him. As the pressure increases, Sarah finds herself torn between her loyalty and love for her husband and her fascination with the possibility of life with Hartley. However, note the 'stranger' element in the title. All is not as expected. While the ideas are good here, Marshall’s short stories far outshine this novel. Catherine Chidgey’s The Wish Child remains the front-runner for me. Still to read: C.K. Stead's The Name on the Door is Not Mine.


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