Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 7, 2017

Billy Bird (2016), by Emma Neale

One theme I’ve been studiously avoiding in my reading over the last couple of years is the subject of grief.  I’ve had my own mourning to do (because of this, and this) and I certainly haven’t wanted to read about anybody else’s. But Billy Bird by New Zealand author got under my radar because it was nominated for the 2018 Dublin Literary Award longlist, and although it took a bit of fortitude to finish it I can see why it’s a popular book.

It’s not just about grief, because it’s about parenthood too: it’s about a young family falling apart because of successive bereavements and (like most of us) not having the resources to deal with it.

This is the blurb:

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.

Liam and Iris are young, and very young at heart, when they have to cope with a death from disease, a suicide and a traffic accident fatality. Life conspires to make this harder with a move from Auckland to Dunedin, leaving familiar routines and friends behind.  Neither of them have family to speak of, only each other.  And like most of us, they are flawed human beings with character traits that make grieving more difficult.  Iris has major anxiety issues which are tiresome for her family, while Liam (the major breadwinner) is bottling up his emotions because he fears what might happen if he cracks.  On top of all of that is the residual fear that apparently haunts many New Zealanders after the Christchurch earthquake and its ongoing aftershocks.  For Iris, Liam’s business trip there is a major stressor because she catastrophises everything even when there isn’t anything much to worry about.  And she is, of course, a classic helicopter parent anyway…

‘What do you think Billy’s up to?’
‘Learning birdanese, I guess.’  Liam used the tone of a man on a diet of pickled onions and tripe.  ‘Leave him to it.’
‘Okay.’  Iris actually managed ‘okay’ for half a minute.  Then she said, ‘I better go and check.’
Liam watched her tuck her shirt back into her skirt waistband as she stood up.
‘Iris’, he said.
‘Come here.’ He moved over to sit on the couch.  She stayed where she was.
‘You’re a good mother.’
They locked stares.  She gave a small shake of the head.
‘Please. Sit down.’ She did.  He put a hand to her forehead: ran his thumb over the skin between her eyebrows, the way it bunched into a small knot.  Her worry-cep, as he called it: big from carrying the weight of the world.
‘Look.  You’re the one going to check on him, right? When he’s perfectly safe, in his very own bedroom, doting over what’s probably going to be his new obsession.  I’m the one trying to get you to come and sit back here,’ he patted the gap between them on the couch again, ‘shuffle your pretty rump up close, drink another wine, and let me play-act seventeen again.  Get in some heavy petting while no one’s watching.’
His eyes did seem rather swilly. ‘How many drinks have you had?’
He shrugged.  ‘A couple.  Look, I’d let him stay in there and eat birdseed for a day if it meant you’d relax.’ (p.187

Billy, their precocious and very bright child, is sensitive to all this, and his obsession with being a bird starts to cause trouble at school.  Still, it takes this couple a while to get the professional counselling help they need (and Liam is especially resistant).  Almost inevitably, they think Billy’s the one who needs help, not realising the fault lines in their own relationship.  The novel (at 327 pages) doesn’t shoehorn the counselling process into an unrealistic timeframe, which is appropriate, but it loses a bit of momentum because the optimistic ending is so foreseeable. The novel also risks being sentimental here and there but most of the time it’s poignant rather than twee, and I guess that goes with the territory for this sort of book…

See also the review at Booksellers NZ.

Author: Emma Neale
Title: Billy Bird
Publisher: Vintage (Penguin Random House New Zealand), 2016
ISBN: 9780143770053
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $25.90

Available from Fishpond: Billy Bird


  1. Psych daughter led us into family counselling years ago, at a time when I was sure psychology was just fake science, but it worked well, well enough for me to try it again at a time when I needed it (and my employer was happy to pay for it).


    • I can see the need for it in that situation, for sure.
      But I also think that when so many people don’t have wise old elders to help them get through the really tough stuff, family counselling (marriage guidance, grief counselling etc) can be really helpful. People often lean on friends, and of course that’s great up to a point, but talking things over with someone you can be really honest with, holding nothing back, is better if the issues are complex, and that leaves your friends free to be your friends, not your counsellors, and then being with them can offer a much-needed break from talking about distressing things.


  2. […] Bird, by Emma Neale*, see my review and see Sarah Forster’s review at The […]


  3. […] Billy Bird by Emma Neale (Vintage, Penguin Random House), see my review […]


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