Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

From TheBookbag
Jump to navigationJump to search

Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May

Buy Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May at or

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Billy's mum dies, but Billy's going to be ok. His life isn't as tragic as those in the supermarket magazines and he's still got his 6 year old brother. Yes, he and little Oscar will be fine... they'll always be together... won't they?
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: March 2012
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1408819135

Share on: Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on Instagram

Shortlisted for Costa Novel Award 2012

Billy's mum is dead. Billy is 19 years old when his mum resists a mugger; this is the last thing she ever does, leaving Billy with 6 year old Oscar to face life together. They'll be fine. For a start, their life isn't as bad as the 'Life! Death! Prizes!' type magazines at supermarket check-outs. Billy has a job at the local history museum, Oscar's doing ok at school, so, despite their Aunt Toni, despite Oscar's recently reappearing father, despite the PTA mothers at the school gates... and social services... and the fact that the mugger is a local lad that Billy sees around... yep, they'll be fine.

The whole book is written in the words of Billy, whom I liked immensely. It would be interesting to hear the opinions of readers around the same age as Billy, but to me he sounds authentic. He's fun, witty, has fascinating ideas about the world and is desperate to do the right thing for Oscar, even putting his little brother ahead of his own grieving process. His fraternal love and sense of responsibility for Oscar permeates the novel, shining out of the smallest detail. For instance anyone who has put a 6 year old to bed will recognise bedtime-story-creep, as the number of stories increase with what the listener can get away with. At times I did wonder whether Billy was a little too perceptive for his age and situation, but he is an intelligent 19 year old lad forced to look at life differently, perhaps explaining his depth of insight. Also, as the novel progresses, the reader begins to notice that things do sometimes go beneath his personal radar.

I loved this book and, indeed, Stephen May's writing style. It's sort of Willy Russell meets Tony Parsons meets Lionel Shriver but along with the similarities comes a huge helping of originality. Billy doesn't just narrate his own story, but peppers it with examples from the magazines his mother always used to buy. To begin with they act as a barometer to how well he's coping. The people in the mags seem a lot worse off so he's doing fine. However, later the magazine features take on a more sinister purpose. Also the author has skilfully intercut vignettes of biography, again recounted by Billy. First there's the life of Aiden Jebb whom Billy suspects of killing his mother and, secondly, a bit of local history: the story of two local children who were hanged. Aiden's upbringing is in stark contrast to that of Billy and Oscar explaining, at least to Billy, why Aiden became a tragic criminal. The snippets of local history are interesting, their place in the story being a bit of a mystery, until...

It's not just the story that makes Life! Death! Prizes! such an interesting piece. It's an extremely clever lesson in author-controlled mind management. The reader is so engaged, charmed, beguiled and touched by Billy's viewpoint that... No, I won't go any further than that but hats off to Stephen May; he is indeed a master manipulator.

The author's first book, Tag, was awarded 'Welsh Book of the Year' for 2009 after being printed by a small, independent press. However Life! Death! Prizes! deserves an even greater audience and I'm sure it will receive it, along with even greater accolades.

If you enjoyed this and would like to read another story in which the reader is introduced to an interesting single viewpoint, try We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. It's a little darker, but just as cleverly composed.

Please share on: Facebook Facebook, Twitter, Twitter and Instagram Instagram

Buy Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Life! Death! Prizes! by Stephen May at


Like to comment on this review?

Just send us an email and we'll put the best up on the site.