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!