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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Life, Death, Prizes: Perfectly Observed, 6 Jun 2012
This review is from: Life! Death! Prizes! (Paperback)
Stephen May's novel, Life, Death, Prizes (which takes its title from the covers of 'real life-stories' magazines found in dentists' waiting rooms) is a triumpth of dead-pan observation, entirely devoid of writerly angst or literary pretentions and a joyous read because of this. Set in an English 'anytown', it charts the fall-out from the death of Billy's Mum in an unprovoked attack by a petty criminal. Billy is in his late teens and is left - or wants to be left - to look after his little brother Oscar and as far as possible carry on as normal, except only eating what they like, watching whatever they want on the telly and going to bed as late as takes their fancy. Needless to say, events conspire against them, but it is Billy's subtle take on surrogate parenthood that is at the heart of the book, and brilliantly imagined it is too. Around Billy, a cast of largely hapless characters drift in and out, offering a portrait of an England that largely (but not exclusively) means well, but isn't really very good at doing most things. This makes for plenty of comic moments and some attractively grotesque but all too realistic figures. But also, beyond the wry asides and self-depricating humour, there is a certain darkness and danger: those people who we know lurk on the margins of our towns but are still slightly too close for comfort. And perhaps because of this, every chameo appearance suggests another story (why exactly does a helpless but harmless alchoholic have grade eight piano? We may never know.), making the book feel like a curious documentary as much as a work of fiction. Like a number of new-ish writers who should be better known (Helen Cross and Jen Ashworth for instance) the protagonists of May's novel are hardly aspiration - in fact anything but. But this is a wonderful read because it does not try to sell us anything at all. It simply tells the kind of story that in abbreviated form would appear in magazines with Life! Death! Prizes! on the cover, although with the kind of insight possessed by a very good writer. An excellent read with a lasting impact.
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