Life! Death! Prizes!
Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ
Billy is 19 years old when his mother is killed, a victim of a bungled street robbery. Taking a gap year before university, Billy is supposed to be living a carefree life. Now he has lost his mother, his father is non-existent and to top it off, Billy must now act as both mother and father to his six year old brother Oscar.
Billy means well and he’s doing his best – he means to keep Oscar with him, they’re a family and they only have each other now. But he knows it isn’t going to be easy, especially with his mother’s sister making noises about wanting custody, Oscar’s absent-until-now biological father talking about spending time with Oscar, Oscar’s teacher and the school principal questioning him and social services knocking on the door.
Billy begins to think that the best way to deal with things – the bills, the threats of custody hearings and concerns about Oscar’s wellbeing, is to just ignore it all and it will all go away soon enough. But that method doesn’t seem to be working very well and the stress begins to wear him down. It doesn’t help that he sees the face of his mother’s killer everywhere he goes, staring at him from across the street, approaching him in men’s rooms. Obsessed with finding him and having him caught, Billy is beginning to let go of the things that are really important.
I received Life! Death! Prizes! in the mail for review and it didn’t take me long to dive into this story. Billy is just a kid, only 19 and he has just lost his mother in a brutal, senseless way. He finds himself playing parent to his younger brother Oscar, struggling to get him up and to school each day, his homework done, fed and tucked up into bed each night and dealing with a bed-wetting problem. He seems to be attacked from all sides, with people who should be supporting him working against him and confronting him at every turn.
Whilst I understood that Billy wasn’t ready for this responsibility and that it was wearing him down and that he wasn’t particularly succeeding, he was coping the best way he knew how and he cared very deeply for Oscar. I felt that the way in which people went about trying to deal with the situation was extremely unhelpful for him – Oscar’s biological father requesting access after the funeral, when he hadn’t had anything to do with Oscar, was insensitive. Billy and Oscar’s aunt could’ve worked with him, rather than choosing to stand back and watch him struggle before filing for custody. And the school situation, where Billy meets with one of the teaching staff who then begins to bandy around personality and mental disorders she predicts Oscar will begin to start showing signs of due to his living condition was just extremely unprofessional, unresearched and rude. It was hard not to feel such sympathy for Billy, he’s in a hard place but he obviously wants what is left of his family to be together.
Adding to his stress, Billy keeps seeing the youth wanted for his mother’s death everywhere. This person haunts him, as he has destroyed Billy’s whole world and as yet, is going unpunished for the deed. Billy and Oscar are suffering but so far the accused is still out there, still living his life while Billy’s mother is no longer living hers. He immerses himself in magazines that detail weird and wonderful happenings to people (hence the title, as he refers to them as Life! Death! Prizes! magazines because that’s what the cover headlines say, in a nutshell), in trying to make sense of his mother’s own utterly senseless death and their situation.
Life! Death! Prizes! is a very well written story on grief, love and family. On wanting to do what’s right, even when you don’t know how to go about it – and this is true for more characters than just Billy himself. There are many people in this book that are struggling to do the right thing, or thinking that they’re doing the right thing, trying to do what is best even if at first it seems like they are not. It questions the dynamics and specifics of a family, the role of social services and the school in welfare and what is best for a young child in the face of a tragedy. Billy, whilst not perfect or anything close to resembling it, requires admiration. Sometimes you don’t know what it is you really need until the decision is taken out of your hands and made for you.
Book #112 of 2012