Billy Bird by Emma Neale - book review

by Eleanor Ainge Roy / 16 September, 2016

Help us find and write the stories Kiwis need to read

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).

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest

The last straw: Can anything end our love affair with plastic?
92498 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Environment

The last straw: Can anything end our love affair w…

by Charlotte Graham-McLay

Wellington is making moves to become NZ’s first straw-free city and the govt is considering phasing out plastic bags. But can such bans really work?

Read more
Sunshine is important for both mental and physical health – here's why
92634 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Health

Sunshine is important for both mental and physical…

by Ruth Nichol

Exposure to sunshine at this time of year not only lifts our mood but also strengthens our bones.

Read more
Why chef and restaurateur Sid Sahrawat is king of the Auckland restaurant scene
92566 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Why chef and restaurateur Sid Sahrawat is king of …

by Leisha Jones

To watch Sid Sahrawat at work at his fine-dining restaurant, Sidart, is to witness an artist in action.

Read more
1947 eatery restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92182 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

1947 eatery restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant 1947 eatery.

Read more
Amano Britomart restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92232 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Amano Britomart restaurant review: Metro Top 50 20…

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Amano.

Read more
Apero restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92396 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Apero restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Apéro.

Read more
Augustus Bistro restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92401 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Augustus Bistro restaurant review: Metro Top 50 20…

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Augustus Bistro.

Read more
Azabu restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018
92422 2018-06-21 00:00:00Z Top 50 Restaurants

Azabu restaurant review: Metro Top 50 2018

by Metro

A review of Metro Top 50 2018 restaurant Azabu.

Read more