‘A readable, heartwarming coming-of-age story, disguised as something much darker’ – Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May starts at the narrator’s mum’s funeral. Billy is nineteen, his brother is six, and their mum has been murdered by a junkie in a car park mugging gone wrong. The question is: how will Billy deal with his mum’s considerable debts, with losing the family home, with looking after a six-year-old, and how will he prevent his brother falling into the custodial clutches of his boorish natural father?

So far, so bad.

I’ve been reading a lot of Jacqueline Wilson lately, and at this point, I wondered if the novel was heading into her territory. Wilson specialises in placing naive, but engaging young first person narrators in the very direst of situations (abusive fathers, psychotic mothers and so on), then somehow letting their innate good qualities shine through to lead them to a satisfactory resolution. This novel starts off in what could be construed as a similar vein – a darkly funny, yet upbeat description in that Wilson-esque first person present tense:

“After the funeral there seems to be a tacit agreement among the guests that it can all kick off now. Whether you’re a glammy PTA type that got to know Mum at the school gates, one of the distant uncles with hair like a crash helmet, a marketing whizz in expensive shoes, the police family liaison, or my mate Alfie teaming his ever-present eyeliner with his job interview suit. Whether you’re an Office Angel, or Mr and Mrs Khan from next door, it seems to have been decided: everyone can go mental now.”

I should say that in comparing Life! to a Jacqueline Wilson novel, I do so only in the most complimentary terms. Billy’s voice is successfully engaging, young, and funny. But the narrative does more. Interspersed with Billy’s point of view is the tale of Aiden Jebb, the suspected murderer – a narrative hint that May is trying to achieve something else. May’s first novel, Tag, won a Reader’s Choice Award at the 2009 Welsh Book of the Year. Readability is certainly a key quality of this book too. Yet the apparent simplicity of the language disguises something more thoughtful and intelligent in the narrative intent.

Is the situation quite as Billy perceives it? May increasingly sows doubt about whether Billy’s views can be trusted. I was slightly reminded of DB Pierre’s Booker-winning Vernon God Little (again because of the first person teenage narrator), where you can almost literally feel the noose tightening around the teenage narrator, as he makes one poor decision after another.

Yet Life! doesn’t rely on that kind of suspense to keep you turning the pages either. Instead, the author always throws out the possibility of redemption, the merest hint that the narrator is actually a good kid, that his mum managed to instil some sense into him before she popped her clogs, and that even when faced with increasingly bad odds, he will somehow snatch a victory from the jaws of impending disaster.

About halfway through, I stopped reaching for comparisons with other books, and started to enjoy what this talented author was creating – for its own sake.

Stephen May has created a lovely portrayal of a young man caught between the normal middle class teenage habits: smoking weed, playing computer games, fancying a somewhat unattainable girl – and the stark responsibilities he’s faced with in the aftermath of his mum’s death.

The novel represents Billy’s attempts to square his understanding of life with the way it’s presented in “the sort of magazines that deal in real life heartbreak”. It beautifully balances the tension between tabloid-style melodrama and the more subtle, complex tones of Billy’s own lived experience. On one level, this is a novel about the nature of narrative itself – how do you write about big, extraordinary events without resorting to the language of soap opera? How can one render the stuff of melodrama into a form that is neither melodramatic nor overly sentimental – yet which honours the truth of our messy, trivial human lives?

In this novel, Stephen May comes up with an admirable solution.

Any Cop?: Yes. A readable, heartwarming coming-of-age story, disguised as something much darker. Funny and tender, a good one to take on holiday, dare I suggest.

Ebba Brooks

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