Review: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May
When his mum is killed during a botched mugging, after refusing to hand over her Netbook, 19-year-old Billy is left alone to care for his six-year-old brother, Oscar. Tortured by sightings of her killer and under pressure from Oscar’s previously absent father, Billy struggles to deal with his grief and learn how to raise a child.
Author Stephen May was keynote speaker at the recent Newcastle Writing Conference, where he kept the audience entertained with his references to writers as “megalomaniacs with low self-esteem.” Fortunately he’s a generous guy – I didn’t have enough money on me to buy a copy of his novel during the lunch break, so he let me barter the price down in exchange for a blog review. I’m glad he did, as I wouldn’t otherwise have read Life! Death! Prizes! and it’s a brilliant, bittersweet coming-of-age story.
The title comes from Billy’s observation that women’s magazines are like trauma porn, their covers happily sitting statements about incest, rape and torture beside competitions to win a weekend in Blackpool, all sprinkled liberally with exclamation marks to show that it’s okay, this is a magazine you want to read over a cuppa and a Kit Kat. (Incidentally, while reading up on the novel I came across this article that describes the phenomenon perfectly).
This observation is a snapshot of Billy’s character. He’s a typical lad with a wry sense of humour, taking refuge in his familiar lifestyle of online gaming, movies, mates, takeaways and spliffs. Unfortunately he drags his little brother along with him, convinced that their ‘all lads together’ attitude is enough, despite the concern of outsiders.
But Billy does have Oscar’s best interests at heart and it’s heartbreaking at times watching him struggling to cope but pushing on anyway. He believes that as long as they’re together and have a roof over their heads, everything will be fine. Unfortunately, a growing army of well-wishers don’t see it that way. As concerns over Billy’s ability to look after Oscar are raised by their aunt Toni, Oscar’s dad Dean, his head teacher and social services, it looks like the brothers might be separated.
As well as his family troubles, Billy also has a less than stellar love life, having fallen for Goth teacher Lucy, who happens to already have the perfect artist boyfriend. Unhappily for her the boyfriend is a cheater, which she is prepared to forgive, but that doesn’t stop her toying with Billy.
For me, one of the highlights of the book was the character of Oscar. At six-years-old, he’s precocious yet incredibly serious – not really surprising for a boy who’s just lost his mum. But his conversations with Billy are touching and often amusing.
May’s writing manages to find the right balance between authentic teenage voice and genuine pathos. Billy’s observations are acute yet sarcastically humorous: “My dad’s not here (a solitary text: thinkin of U m8. M8? He’s not my m8. He’s my father. He should remember that. And he should sort out predictive text.)”
There are moments of real tragedy in this novel, yet they’re always given a wry description that allows the story to provoke emotion in the reader without becoming mawkish. A very modern tale of grief and growing up that is definitely worth reading.