Billy Bird by Emma Neale - book review

by Eleanor Ainge Roy / 16 September, 2016

Humorous novel is a disarming portrait of Kiwi family life.

This delightful easy-read by award-winning Dunedin writer Emma Neale is quintessentially Kiwi. Island-focused and insular, Neale has mined the middle-class New Zealand family for all its domestic charm and quirks – the language, the rhythms and the routine of domesticity.

Liam and Iris have a son who is – are parents allowed to think this? Iris insistently wonders – more than just normal. After a tragic event, and a “discombobulating” shift from Auckland to Dunedin, eight-year-old Billy begins to believe he is a bird. He kaah-kaah’s like a kea, demands nuts and seeds for tea and skips school to visit the pet shop and aviary.

Iris, achingly endearing in her maternal attempts to keep the fracturing family unit together, doesn’t know how to handle her bird-like son. Instead, she cleans the house (obsessively), cooks lavish meals and rearranges the furniture, hoping the right placement of her work table will put an end to her procrastination.

Liam, distracted by a new business venture, is a slightly remote figure, expressing his grief through short-tempered aloofness and burying himself in work.

The chapters race by as the family try to move on from that corner, that day. A slower pace would have made it easier to digest the rapid plot developments and busy scenes, but the whirly, dialogue-heavy prose (Neale has a keen ear for domestic platitudes) fits the confusing things-will-settle-down angst of this young family.

Pride of place in this novel is the beautifully crafted young Billy; questioning, clever and frequently insightful. As the adults get stranger and more disconnected from one another, Billy’s decision to fly free makes perfect sense – dropping language for raw, primal bird calls, forsaking the crowded interior of his family home for the chilly southern skies of Dunedin.

Most winningly, Billy Bird is a serious novel driven by humour. Not humour as an afterthought or employed for occasional levity, but as the very essence of the book, its pulse and its heart.

Set in the wider context of a very recent and, with the Christchurch earthquake and the housing crisis, slightly turbulent New Zealand, the story is most disarming when family life descends into absurd chaos. Scenes like a rat-catching endeavour connect this family with any Kiwi family: limping along, clinging to routine, waiting for life to settle down among the many daily personal challenges

BILLY BIRD by Emma Neale (Penguin Random House, $38).

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