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The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, David Almond
Candlewick, January 2014
Reviewed from finished ebook
David Almond was one of the original Printz court (see my royalty pun there?). Skellig was an honor book in 2000, and then Kit’s Wilderness took the gold in 2001. Almond hasn’t stopped writing; at least in his native England, he seems to have something published and earning accolades nearly every year. So why is no one talking about his latest to cross the pond, the surreal and magnificent The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean?
Maybe it’s just that I had my head still firmly stuck in 2013 books in January, but I almost missed this entirely. Luckily someone put his next book on their to-read list in Goodreads, and when I went to check the US pubdate for that one, I stumbled across this one. It received three starred reviews, so we can be sure three people read it, plus me and one stalwart reader who read it for my discussion group at BookFest @Bank Street last week. I’m wondering if that’s it. (Edited to add: And the smart folks at PW, who put it on their list.) Which is a shame, because while I’m still not sure I liked this one, I think it’s definitely in the running for most ambitious novel of the year.
I could spend time describing the achievement (and, ok, headache) that is the voice, but I think a sample of the text as it is written might be the best illustration:
This tail is told by 1 that died at birth by 1 that came into the world in days of endles war & at the moment of disaster.
He grew in isolayshon wile the enjins of destrucshon grew & smoke rose over the sitys & wile wilderness & waste crept all acros the world.
He grew up with the birds & mise as frends.
He wos a secrit shy & thick & tungtied emptyheded thing.
He wos tort to read & rite & spel by his tenda littl muther & by Mr McCaufrey the butcha & by Missus Malone and her gosts.
So he is not cleva so plees forgiv his folts & his mistayks.
There’s a poetic, musical grace to the sentences, and when you are deep in it there are moments when the reading becomes effortless and it’s just astounding. But it’s work. It’s a short book that takes significant time and concentration; I had to read aloud at times to get the sense of the text. All of which is compounded by the fact that it’s a phonetic rendering of an unfamiliar accent. (“Taught” in American-accented phonetics wouldn’t have the r from the excerpt above, for example, while “butcher” would – so as an American reader, there is sometimes an extra layer of decoding necessary.) The reader struggles with Billy Dean’s language as he struggles with the language (read and spoken) of the world — he hears but does not always understand, and he struggles to read and communicate. We read but cannot always understand. There is so much presence to the language that the text becomes a kind of character itself, working in conjunction with Billy to communicate meaning and growing at the end in parallel to his growth; it is his memoir and also a kind of quasi religious codex, inspired by the Lindisfarne Gospels — a profane, post World War III version, carved into the skins of mice he has killed (in a truly disturbing sequence, made more horrifying because Billy doesn’t seem to recognize how disturbing his actions are; he is not amoral by any means but his morality has some very interesting holes), fitting for a book that reads like a parable or fairy tale, a book deeply invested in questions of faith and spirituality.
And oh boy, that religious element is huge. Billy is the illegitimate offspring of a charismatic priest (there are some faint echoes of The Scarlet Letter), born on the day World War III (or a near approximation) started, raised in secrecy, with possible healing powers. There’s a light versus dark thread, but who belongs on what side sometimes feels murky (except Billy’s father, who is clearly dark). There may be an implication that any form of religion is inherently flawed, and that goodness is in those with small aspirations — butchers, hairdressers, children. I’m not sure yet, because this is a book that is well worth multiple reads and so far I’ve only read it once. I am sure that big questions are raised and hard questions are asked.
Of course, it’s not all brilliance and ambition — the world building had some holes which detracted from the whole. The idea that the world goes to hell on a handbasket but people still want their hair done is a lovely little grace note about humanity and simple pleasures and connection, and evoked Blitz-era London and the indomitable spirit. But I kept wondering where the supplies were coming from, which in turn had me asking lots of questions about how it’s all working; there aren’t answers. This is a story about Blinkbonny, not the world. And maybe it’s that Billy is an unreliable narrator because there is so much he doesn’t know and therefore that the reader can’t know. But I’m not sure, and it was a distraction.
And finally, the fact that the whole novel is written retroactively and then ends with perfected spelling — I get the point and the mirror of his journey — yes. Yes. But it also made it all slightly smack of gimmickry.
But despite those reservations, this is the book that reminded me why holding on to the old is worth it, even if nostalgia alone is no reason to consider a book. David Almond is a genius, even if he’s not a perfect writer, and this complex, flawed, extraordinary, original book deserves a whole lot of attention.
Filed under: Books to look for, Contenders, Fiction
About Karyn Silverman
Karyn Silverman is the High School Librarian and Educational Technology Department Chair at LREI, Little Red School House & Elisabeth Irwin High School (say that ten times fast!). Karyn has served on YALSA’s Quick Picks and Best Books committees and was a member of the 2009 Printz committee. She has reviewed for Kirkus and School Library Journal. She has a lot of opinions about almost everything, as long as all the things are books. Said opinions do not reflect the attitudes or opinions of SLJ, LREI, YALSA or any other institutions with which she is affiliated. Find her on Twitter @InfoWitch or e-mail her at karynsilverman at gmail dot com.
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