Sometimes you need a book that rattles on at a pace, with an engaging plot and characters you feel for. After Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick (as much as I liked it, it was hard work to read), Life! Death! Prizes! was a breath of fresh air. It is a heart-breaking, yet heart-warming tale of a young man’s love for his brother while dealing (not very well) with the grief of losing their mother. In the aftermath of a mugging gone wrong, Billy tries to pick up the pieces and look after 6-year-old Oscar as best he can.
It is a darkly amusing book, easy to read because of its short chunks and on the surface quite straightforward, but there is something deeper going on. Life! Death! Prizes! is firmly rooted in middle England; In Essex commuter-belt-land, where middle class snobbery rubs shoulders with the less fortunate and slightly unsavoury (ooh sounds like here – no, really!) – or does it? As I read the book I had to keep reminding myself of the first person narrative and that information about Aiden Jebb, the suspected murderer, and the unpleasant types he hangs out with, we learn from Billy, and Billy is a bit unreliable as a narrator of Aiden Jebb’s back story, mainly because his head is in bits.
Billy, bless him, doesn’t realise how his grief is affecting his mind. As the book progresses we notice his slow deterioration into a torpor which almost brings him to a standstill. The house is a state, his and Oscar’s routine is shot, he either stares into space, watches films, plays a world-domination computer game or looks for porn on the web. He can’t sleep, but refuses to seek help, because he doesn’t think there’s really anything wrong. He also obsesses over “trauma porn” magazines the likes of which everyone picks up in the doctor’s surgery. He reads them to remind himself that there are other people worse off than Oscar and him. This is another means of denying and ignoring his own grief.
We, the readers, are aware of what is happening to Billy and how he is going to completely bugger things up if he’s not careful, but Billy himself is in denial. That’s what I think is very clever about the way Stephen May has written this book; the reader knows something about the character that he doesn’t know about himself.
I chuckled a lot at Billy’s sense of humour and straightforward talking, I felt his anger but I also wanted to mother the two of them, I cared about their welfare. As I said at the end of my review for Pig Iron by Benjamin Myers, when you care for a character, you know the writer has reached you. This book, like Pig Iron, is also shortlisted for The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize and will be showcased by New Writing North’s campaign, Read Regional. In my opinion, Stephen May is another writer to watch. This is his 2nd book, but I can imagine more good reads in the future.
As an aside, I also liked the fact that my home town got a mention – albeit with regards to a lunatic solicitor who butchered his family!
9 thoughts on “Life! Death! Prizes! – Stephen May”
I remember looking briefly at this book and then not being sure, then seeing it had made the Costa shortlist I went to have another read and now I think I will definitely read it. Thanks for your review.
Thank you for reviewing another new book in such a way that would make me think of reading it! If nothing else you have given me plenty of ideas for presents for family, friends etc. My own home town, I’m afraid to say, has only made it into a song about it having no pubs, because me and brother drank them all dry.
You are so funny Colin, with your little one liners! Can’t believe you are already thinking of Christmas purchases! I have a book here sent by a publisher that I think will be right up your street – will you get in touch via my contact form and I’ll organise getting it to you somehow?
First of all, thank you for your kind offer of the mystery book. I’d love to get it although you would need to send it out to Spain. I’ve looked for your contact form but can’t see it, although I have a terrible feeling it’s staring me in the face. If nothing else, there’s an email address linked to my novel. You could get in touch with me there and I’ll get my details to you. Also apologies for not replying sooner.
Nice review! It’s always exciting when your home town gets a mention. I grew up in the London suburbs that Hanif Kureishi satirises pretty brutally in Buddha of Suburbia, and it was good to recognise the places, which normally get overlooked. This books sounds interesting. I like the cover and the title too – very eyecatching!
Thanks for your comment Andrew! I love Hanif Kureishi, but haven’t read any of his books for a while. Life! Death! Prizes! is a lovely book, with amusing dialogue, but very sad in places. You’re right the title and cover make it quite attractive.
I have a copy of this, but hadn’t been that interested in reading it. Your review has sparked my interest – I’ll be in need of a more plot driven book after I’ve worked my way through the Booker shortlist – I’ll ensure I give it a try.
It’s a good one for exactly that situation – after a heavy book, an easy, thought-provoking but amusing story. I don’t envy you reading the Man Booker shortlist!