Emma Neale’s sixth novel, Billy Bird, probes the life of a troubled family – Liam, Iris and eight-year-old Billy. They are all reeling from a series of tragedies that have befallen their household, and a decision is made to up sticks, swap Auckland for Dunedin, and try to put the past behind them. Iris is reluctant, but Liam is enthusiastic: “Change is the only constant” he notes, and Iris relents.
Billy finds it all a bit “discomBOBulating”; “Time muddles and slides”, and his loneliness is exacerbated when he starts school and fails to make connections with the unfamiliar teachers and children. His response is to drift further into an enthusiasm for birds that began early in his life – his first word was bird, well “bid”, to be exact. Billy senses a powerful connection with them, imagining he can feel their “song in his body the way you feel good dreams still in your blood as you wake up slowly.”
With his parents enmeshed in grief-displacement activities, both domestic and professional, Billy’s interest in birds increases, and he begins to dip in and out of his own bird-like persona. On one level, this brings great comfort and helps him manage the realities of a life that are threatening to overwhelm him. But it also brings its own problems, as Liam and Iris become increasingly bewildered by his behaviour. Already at odds with each other, they struggle to agree on the best way of dealing with Billy’s eccentricities.
Neale’s novel feels both realistic and fantastical at once. Billy clearly isn’t morphing into a bird in any literal sense, but he describes himself as being “always like a bird on the inside”, and, at times, the avian in him takes on a life of its own; his insistence on spending time in trees, his determination to eat only seeds and nuts and his bird-like noises: “RAARK, RAARK, CHIP-CHIP, TWEETATIT, tweetatit, sweedle, sweedle, drrrih, drrrih”.
Billy is also charming and perceptive; he knows whether a supposedly funny comment is ha-ha or “ha-not, ha-not”. He’s curious, asking his parents, “So why didn’t we evolute into birds?” He’s honest, bluntly repeating the comments he’s heard about an uncle who committed suicide: “I thought he died from being a selfish bloody idiot, or from being too bung in the head to see straight.” And he has the perfect way of describing himself when he feels out of sorts – “body-wrong” and “kwonk” – made-up words and expressions that get right to the nub of things. Billy is on a complex and bumpy journey which Neale manages skilfully, remaining clear-eyed and avoiding any tendency to drift into mawkishness.
Meanwhile, Liam and Iris trudge on: they obsess about jobs, lack of jobs, trying to be good parents, what to eat, what not to eat – but both are too jittery to deal with anything effectively. They circle Billy and each other nervously, side-stepping what they’re really thinking, unable to communicate effectively with anyone around them. Neale has touched on familial issues in previous novels (Little Moon, Double Take) and she has also explored the joys and tensions of motherhood through her poetry, particularly in her 2008 collection Spark. Billy Bird picks up these themes and captures the push and pull of parenting, particularly through Iris’s restless helicopter approach to mothering. She is desperate to be a “decent mother” and, although this frustrates Billy, her uncertainty about her abilities (“why did every tiny interaction have to feel like a struggle?”) and her desire to be a mother who “would arrive at school looking unsullied”, will resonate with many.
Iris’s predicament is aggravated by Liam’s emotional and often geographical absence. At a particularly low point, Iris’s plea to her son – “Billy, if we love you as best we can, won’t that be enough?” – is ignored by Liam, as he once again takes himself out of the house. Marriage, grief and bereavement are forces behind this novel, and dealing with adversity as a couple is carefully dissected. The bonds between Liam and Iris are strong – “Practised, efficient, married sex has its blessings” – but it is touch and go as to whether they will be strong enough.
When the cracks widen, and it becomes clear that the family is unable to continue papering them over, it is Iris who realises they need help. Liam is resistant to what he calls “All of this feeling wank”, and it takes some time for him to honestly engage with the process of healing.
Their champions come in the shape of professionals and friends who gently prise open their tiny unit so that Liam and Iris can accept the practical and emotional help they badly need. Neale deftly captures the feeling of hope that gradually creeps up on the family. Billy, Iris and Liam begin to recalibrate and process the events that have led them to this point, reviewing their past with fresh eyes. There is no magic bullet, but there is a sense of possibility and hope for the future.
The territory of grief and family life in fiction is well-trodden, but the psychological layering of Billy Bird, accompanied by the brio of Neale’s prose, makes this a bittersweet tale with considerable emotional clout. The writing has a poetic sensibility, combined with a vim and vigour which animates the storytelling and lifts the action above a conventional domestic narrative. It also acts as a circuit-breaker to the dark moods experienced by Iris and Liam. Flashes of humour relieve the tension that slowly builds throughout the novel, and Billy’s vivacious nature and witty rejoinders to his often grumpy father – “why if you’re tired, is it my bedtime?” – bring welcome light relief.
There is, perhaps, a slight problem of pace: for a book that started with a hiss and a roar, Iris’s slow realisations, and Liam’s extended prevarications during the process of revelation, feel drawn out. The rhythm of the book takes up a leisurely pace, and the discursive tone is at odds with the book’s initial turbulence. But the pace starts to pick up again when help for the family appears.
Billy Bird inevitably brings to mind William Wharton’s 1979 novel, Birdy. Both novels feature characters whose obsession with birds offers an escape from a grim reality. In parts, it is also reminiscent of Emma Donoghue’s astonishing 2010 novel, Room, which again focuses on trauma and family, albeit in a drastically different setting. Both Neale’s Billy and Donoghue’s 5-year-old Jack are relentlessly curious, have an urge to protect the adults they love, and have their own idiosyncratic voices. Both novels also provide an opportunity to talk about parenting and love in a striking and original way.
This is a novel that is confident in its New Zealandness: urban centres are casually name-dropped; Billy refers to Liam as Bleary McLeary when he’s struggling through a hangover; and Billy experiences a profound intimacy with a riroriro. Familiar tropes of Kiwi identity (earthquakes, house prices, the weather, healthcare, adventure tourism) are stitched seamlessly into the plot. Good stories are universal, and I kept reading Billy Bird because I needed to know how the themes of love, grief and recovery played out. But it does add a frisson of pleasure to encounter all of this in an assuredly Kiwi setting.
Catriona Ferguson is chief executive of the New Zealand Book Council.