Emma Neale’s latest novel looks at trauma and its effect on a family. At the heart of this family is Billy, a thoughtful and intelligent young boy who desires to be a bird, as if becoming a bird will right all the wrongs that surround Jase. When Billy is two his cousin becomes part of the small nuclear family, after Jase’s parents die. For Billy and his parents, Liam and Iris, this begins a period of readjustment, acceptance and coping. For Billy, he has an almost-brother, one who becomes increasingly important to him. Fire ahead six years to a day of showing off and a terrible accident and all is thrown into chaos. Will Liam and Iris be able to save their marriage and stop their destructive patterns heightened by grief and loss? Will Billy find a way to cope with his parents’ despair as well as his own feelings of guilt and sadness? Neale has created characters that will resonate with many. Liam is trying hard to make the most of things by battling through and attempting to look to the future, but keeping his grief under control leads to frustration and a realisation that there are some things you can’t keep running from. Iris, always wanting to be the perfect parent, rides herself hard, to the point of being unable to struggle through the day without feeling emotionally and physically drained. When Billy’s bird-like antics threaten his safety, Iris and Liam have to face each other and the grief that has been tightly controlled. Neale weaves humour, understanding and sentiment into this tale about family and loss, but at times, although thoughtful, it feels a little contrived.
Moving, insightful, lyrical and also at times very funny, this novel is a supple, disarmingly frank exploration of parenthood. Liam and Iris have one son: Billy, a bright toddler puddling about (...) leaving surrealist art installations all over the house: a tiny cow in a teapot in a hat on the doorstep, of course! A stuffed crocodile in a silk camisole perched beside a woollen chick in a beanie on the bread-bin, why not!' Just as they are despairing about being able to conceive another child, Jason comes into their family. He arrives under fraught circumstances, but might just make a perfect sibling for Billy. Jason is a lovely, poor, sad, unfortunate, ordinary, annoying, delightful nuisance of a ratbag of a hoot of a kid ' and the boys grow close over the ensuing years. But after a terrible accident, Billy turns into a bird. He utterly believes it: and as his behaviour becomes increasingly worrying, Liam and Iris must find a way to stop their family flying apart. When extracts of Billy Bird won the NZSA/Philip and Dianne Beatson Fellowship, the judges said the project was inventive, joyful and beautifully written'. Ripe with playfulness, yet also unforgettably poignant, this novel will unstitch : and then mend : your heart several times over.
Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize Finalist - Ockham New Zealand Book Awards 2017.
Emma Neale, a poet and prose writer, was born in Dunedin and raised in Christchurch, San Diego CA, and Wellington. After gaining her first literature degree from Victoria University, she went on to complete her MA and PhD at University College, London. She has written five novels : Night Swimming, Little Moon, Relative Strangers, Double Take and Fosterling : and a number of poetry collections, and has edited anthologies of both short stories and poetry. Neale won the Todd New Writers' Bursary in 2000, was the inaugural recipient of the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature (2008), and was the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Her poetry collection The Truth Garden won the Grattan Award for poetry in 2011, and Fosterling was shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Award in 2012. She teaches, works in publishing and looks after her two young sons. Neale blogs at emmaneale.wordpress.com. Night Swimming was described by Pam Henson as a careful dissection of experience into observation, exploration and response'. Graham Beattie declared: Read the first chapter ... and you will be unable to put the book down.' In the Evening Post, John McCrystal described Neale's second novel, Little Moon, as flawlessly written, deploying a wealth of descriptive imagery'. Double Take, a novel which focuses on a young woman's quest to establish her own identity and lead an independent creative life in a world beyond her family, has been described as having unusual readability, thoughtfulness and very fine characterisation' (Dominion Post). Relative Strangers, a thoughtful, carefully crafted story' (Dominion Post), reminds all mothers of what matters most: motherhood'