Cannonball Read 5, Book 72: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

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This is the kind of book I normally avoid like the plague. It sounds all too similar to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, another book I have avoided like the plague, not least because everyone I know who read it wanted to punch Dave Eggers in his smug face. But something made me want to read this. Given my current parental circumstances, I seem to be drawn to novels (apart from Eggers) which focus on the loss of a parent (I’m currently reading May We Be Forgiven, so, you know, yeah).

Billy Smith is nineteen, his younger brother Oscar is just six. Their mother is dead. Billy’s father has never been a strong presence in his life, sending texts like “sorry to hear that m8” as consolation.  Oscar’s father is similarly hopeless, shagging their aunt and belatedly making an effort with Oscar to try and claim custody. Billy reacts how any nineteen year old whose mother is killed in a botched robbery would: he falls apart. But thinks he’s holding it together.

The book is narrated by Billy in the first person and May does an excellent job of getting inside his head and using his voice. It makes for a brilliantly frustrating reading experience. Oscar is an amazing resilient kid who loves and idolises his big brother. Reading sections where Billy tells us all how much he loves Oscar and would do anything before him, before systematically fucking everything up, like any grief stricken nineteen year old would, has you both rooting for and yelling at him.

Peppered throughout is a history of the young drug addict who killed his mum, along with several more ridiculous, more senseless, more pointless deaths gleaned from the pages of one of Billy’s obsession, chav mags (Chat, Pick Me Up, Love It, and the like). The title is how Billy refers to them, since if you boil down the front cover headlines, that’s what they’re advertising.

As the book hurtles toward a conclusion, Billy sinks lower and lower into his anger and grief, even to the point where you begin to question his sanity. Mercifully, the final few pages start to pull us out of the nose dive and allows some hope to start shining in. The final lines of the book are so gloriously, perfectly uplifting, they make it ALL worth it. Highly recommended.

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One thought on “Cannonball Read 5, Book 72: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

  1. Pingback: Popcultureboy’s #CBR5 Review #72: Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May | Cannonball Read V

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