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  • Published: 29 August 2016
  • ISBN: 9780143770053
  • Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $38.00

Billy Bird

Moving, insightful, lyrical and also at times very funny, this novel is a supple, disarmingly frank exploration of parenthood.

Moving, insightful, lyrical and also at times very funny, this novel is a supple, disarmingly frank exploration of parenthood.

Liam and Iris have one son: Billy, a bright ‘toddler puddling about like a penguin, 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.

When extracts of Billy Bird won the NZSA Peter and Dianne Beatson Fellowship, the judges said the project was ‘inventive, joyful and beautifully written’. Ripe with playfulness, yet also unforgettably poignant, this novel will unstitch — and then mend — your heart several times over.

  • Published: 29 August 2016
  • ISBN: 9780143770053
  • Imprint: RHNZ Vintage
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $38.00

About the author

Emma Neale

Emma Neale, a poet and prose writer, was born in Dunedin and raised in Christchurch, San Diego CA, and Wellington. After gaining her first literature degree from Victoria University, she went on to complete her MA and PhD at University College, London. She has written five novels — Night Swimming, Little Moon, Relative Strangers, Double Take and Fosterling — and a number of poetry collections, and has edited anthologies of both short stories and poetry. Neale won the Todd New Writers’ Bursary in 2000, was the inaugural recipient of the NZSA Janet Frame Memorial Award for Literature (2008), and was the 2012 Robert Burns Fellow at the University of Otago. Her poetry collection The Truth Garden won the Grattan Award for poetry in 2011, and Fosterling was shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Award in 2012. She teaches, works in publishing and looks after her two young sons. Neale blogs at emmaneale.wordpress.com.

Night Swimming was described by Pam Henson as a ‘careful dissection of experience into observation, exploration and response’. Graham Beattie declared: ‘Read the first chapter . . . and you will be unable to put the book down.’ In the Evening Post, John McCrystal described Neale’s second novel, Little Moon, as ‘flawlessly written, deploying a wealth of descriptive imagery’.

Double Take, a novel which focuses on a young woman’s quest to establish her own identity and lead an independent creative life in a world beyond her family, has been described as having ‘unusual readability, thoughtfulness and very fine characterisation’ (Dominion Post). Relative Strangers,‘a thoughtful, carefully crafted story’ (Dominion Post), ‘reminds all mothers of what matters most: motherhood’ (Louise Wareham, The New Zealand Listener). Margie Thompson, writing in Next magazine, summed it up: ‘The magic of Emma Neale’s new novel lies in her deep understanding and evocation of the drama of everyday life: the love of a mother for her child, the devastation of infidelity, the need of an adopted person to know where they come from.’ Reviewing her fifth novel, Fosterling, in The New Zealand Herald, Paula Green found the novel ‘testament to her virtuosity with words. She writes with intelligence, heart and a poet’s lyricism.’ Louise O’Brien, writing in The New Zealand Listener, commenting on its ‘emotional power’, called the work ‘a lyrical and nuanced exploration of social exile’.

Also by Emma Neale

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Praise for Billy Bird

Billy Bird is a magnificent book. It’s sad, and happy, and funny, and brutal – and paradigm-breaking. . . . This story is about how a family operates emotionally – and how important communication is when it is time to heal. . . . there were so many times when I thought ‘Exactly!’ and ‘man how can I explain what this writing does to you.’ Writing this wonderful is unusual and rare, though it sometimes happens when poets turn to prose. There are sections of the novel in verse – the initial sex scene, ingeniously –and this adds an otherworldly brilliance to the writing . . . I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Like all truly good books, it fills you with empathy, and a sense of joy in words and in life. I hope this makes it onto the longlist for the Acorn Foundation Literary Award.

Sarah Forster, Booksellers NZ Blog

Humorous novel is a disarming portrait of Kiwi family life. This delightful easy-read by award winning Dunedin writer Emma Neale is quintessentially Kiwi. . . . Pride of place in this novel is the beautifully crafted young Billy; questioning, clever and frequently insightful. As the adults get stranger and more disconnected from one another, Billy’s decision to fly free makes perfect sense – dropping language for raw, primal bird calls, forsaking the crowded interior of his family home for the chilly southern skies of Dunedin. Most winningly, Billy Bird is a serious novel driven by humour. Not humour as an afterthought or employed for occasional levity, but as the very essence of the book, its pulse and its heart.

Eleanor Ainge Roy, NZ Listener

. . . we are in adept and subtle hands. Dunedin author and poet Emma Neale is insightful and skilled when it comes to examining human emotions and experiences condensed in family life. She writes beautifully, perceptively and deceptively simply, whether it is about love and desire ("His hands were earth parched for the rain of her"), about the fear of parenthood "Then came the eponymous, quintessential, most pregnant of pauses. A woman waits on a fulcrum, feeling her life tip towards the maelstrom"), about the joy of parenthood (a "toddler puddling about like a penguin, leaving surrealist art installations all over the house"), about grief "they all lived saddestly ever after") and connection ("They sat there, pressed up against each other, primate to primate, as body warmth started its mending"). . . . Her characters are believable, fallible and lovable. Billy reminded me in turns of Alexander McCall Smith's Bertie and Kate de Goldi's Frankie. As in her poems, she shows how simple and complex, beautiful and ugly, funny and sad life can be. And, as usual, does it perfectly.

Helen Speirs, Otago Daily Times

I could not put this book down. I quickly came to care about these skilfully-drawn, recognisable people, and worried about them sufficiently to put the rest of life on hold while I travelled their path with them. They are easy to love. It is easy to have faith in them, to relate to their clumsy good intentions, their fragility, and the fragility and strength of their love. The heartbreak is real. And as in real life, there’s also laughter, where rollicking farce and the undiplomatic wit of a child offer humour at unseemly moments. . . . Every character, main and minor, steps up in full human complexity, but Billy is a gem. . . . As in her poetry, Emma Neale is an insightful, compassionate writer. She is also honest. Catastrophe happens and not everyone survives. Afterwards, healing is difficult and needs time and patience. But the world she portrays is a good place. People mean well and, largely, do their best. Sometimes, they need help, but help can be found. I closed the book feeling that it was, among other things, a rich exploration of love and the multiple ways it works in society. This story has faith in love, even when it fails, because people, including children, keep trying to find a way.

Carolyn McCurdie, NB: Dunedin public libraries' magazine

. . . it is thoughtful and considered. It's a hoot when it starts out and you'll fly through the first couple of chapters, which are written with verve and vigour. Neale uses prose and simply beautiful story-writing . . . It's an offbeat premise, but it's a highly effective way to investigate grief and grieving and its impact on a family. Neale explores each of the protagonists' reactions and viewpoints, never rushing and subtly emphasising that rarely is there a quick fix. . . . Billy Bird has been described as a "disarmingly frank exploration of parenthood", but it's much more than that. It's about life and death, marriage and parenting, and the importance of accepting there is never a "right way" to react to a situation, that sometimes things take time.

Dionne Christian, Weekend Herald

A very moving and real portrayal of parenthood and grief and loss and ultimately resilience and recovery . . . it's very lightly and deftly handled and there's plenty of humour as well, so it's a very enjoyable and quite a joyful read . . . I particularly enjoyed her portrayal of parenthood . . . anyone would enjoy this, particularly parents of young children.

Holly Walker, Radio NZ

Quirky chapter headings, doodles and a fair amount of bird talk make this charmer as refreshingly individual as Billy, the child at its core . . . Beautifully written with sensitivity and humour, this is a touching look at how events can derail a family and what can be done to get it back on track.

Australian Woman's Weekly

I loved this. A truly Kiwi novel, beautifully written and well imagined and with universal appeal. . . Neale’s language is clever, evocative and stylish without being forced. Poignant, funny, insightful. Lovely stuff.

Linda Thompson, Northern Advocate

The territory of grief and family life in fiction is well-trodden, but the psychological layering of Billy Bird, accompanied by the brio of Neale's prose, makes this a bittersweet tale with considerable emotional clout. The writing has a poetic sensibility, combined with a vim and vigour which animates the storytelling and lifts the action above a conventional domestic narrative. It also acts as a circuit-breaker to the dark moods experienced by Iris and Liam. Flashes of humour relieve the tension that slowly builds throughout the novel, and Billy's vivacious nature and witty rejoinders to his often grumpy father - "why if you're tired, is it my bedtime?" - bring welcome light relief. . . . Good stories are universal, and I kept reading Billy Bird because I needed to know how the themes of love, grief and recovery played out. But it does add a frisson of pleasure to encounter all of this in an assuredly Kiwi setting.

Catriona Ferguson, NZ Books

Grief is the emotion that throws all others into relief, stripping away ego and pretentions. Novels that revolve around grief are not rare. But what Emma Neale has managed to produce in her Ockham Awards shortlisted novel, Billy Bird, certainly is: an often witty, frequently whimsical, domestic novel about a family whose pain is pulling them apart. . . . So it is through the minutiae of domestic life that Neale covers arguably the greatest universal themes there are – love and loss, life and death – played out on the quarter-acre sections of suburban New Zealand. . . . In a classic irony of parenting, they are so focused on fixing their child that they forget to fix themselves, and it is of course their brokenness that has in large part caused their son’s. . . . Neale’s writing is lyrically beautiful. A poet, she originally envisioned Billy Bird as a verse novel, and vestiges of its origins sparkle off the page

Emily Brookes, Landfall

Awards & recognition

Ockham New Zealand Book Awards

Shortlisted  •  2017  •  Ockham Book Awards

International Dublin Literary Award

Longlisted  •  2018  •  Dublin Literary Award

Discover more

Emma Neale's Billy Bird launch speech

Read the missing speech from Billy Bird's launch at University Book Shop.