This is a review of the book Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May. The novel follows the experiences of nineteen year old Billy Smith, who is faced with looking after his six year old brother Oscar after the sudden death of their mother. The book takes its name from those magazines which ask readers to contribute their stories to fill pages, which are not actually called Life! Death! Prizes! but they might as well be. Billy refers to these magazines as “trauma porn”, which I suppose they are, but he devours them nonetheless. Or perhaps he devours them because of that. I leave that open.
The book is a very realistic portrayal of a teenager caught in this situation, trying to convince his aunt, Oscar’s school, social services and the world in general that he is well and truly capable of looking after his brother. The reader is less convinced, with the evidence of inappropriate television habits, random bedtimes and Billy’s strategy of, when his mother’s cashcard finally runs out, of just not paying the bills because the electricity and gas companies wouldn’t dare disconnect them, going against his confidence. He does, however, mean well, and believe he is doing the right thing, and for that we can love him.
Without wanting to give too much away, the fact that the book is in first person from Billy’s POV is used very well in misdirection. His history of Aidan Jebb, the boy who killed their mother, is convincing, and there are times when we are not sure whether we are seeing reality of some drug-induced hallucination. Billy isn’t sure, either, so I appreciate that’s the point. There are a couple of places, though, where I’m still unsure whether the misdirection is deliberate or not. For example, the bit where Billy’s attempted girlfriend Lucy is reading AA Milne to Oscar, Billy considers that a poem like that telling the story of James James Morrison Morrison wouldn’t be tolerated today, as it’s about child abduction. The thing is, of course, that it’s not about that at all (it is James James Morrison Morrison’s mother who disappears, not the boy himself), which leaves me unsure about whether it’s Billy or the author who is making this mistake.
My other criticism is about the twist at the end, which I don’t want to go into in too much detail. However, I think I can say that I didn’t really feel convinced about Billy’s intentions. While that sort of thing is touched on during the story as a whole, I didn’t get enough sense of him heading in that direction. It felt a little contrived, like he was going through the motions rather than actually being in the state of mind to carry it out. Perhaps he was; perhaps that was the point and I missed it, but I got the impression that he was serious. I just didn’t feel it.
Aside from that, it was a very touching book. The relationship between Billy and Oscar was heartwarming, and the lengths that he went to to try to keep things the way they were, much as they could be, was rather endearing. Sure, he didn’t always make the right decisions, but he was trying, and that counts for something. Well written, funny and in some cases painfully honest, it is well worth a read for anyone looking for a contemporary story about family, hope and dreams.