From the Publisher
"Best of all is Levy's smart, modern prose style. The South-African-born Londoner writes with a sensibility once called "Beat." An excellent, entertaining selection."-- Booklist
Dalkey Archive Press
"An ambitious work by the author of Beautiful Mutants, this complex and touching novel explores the themes of identity and a missing moral center with rare aplomb."-- PW
Dalkey Archive Press
This is not a book about Y2K. And it's not a sweeping saga of past wars or a 700-plus-page literary epic. There's no hype here, no movie tie-in. This is a short, twisted, idiosyncratic English tale originally published in 1996 and more recently published in the U.S. by the Dalkey Archive Press. Because of its experimental nature, it is the kind of book most large American publishers won't take a chance on, yet it's a novel that beams with a rare originality and force rarely seen on any bestseller list. Billy and Girl, the fourth book by the London-based writer Deborah Levy -- and the third to be published in the U.S., following Ophelia and the Great Idea and Beautiful Mutants -- follows the disjointed plot line of a warped brother and sister, who wend their way through their teenage years without parents. It's a story that satirizes everything from supermarkets as a kind of one-season Eden to daytime talk shows like "Jerry Springer" to Freudian psychoanalysis.
From the first sentence, the hook is set, and you're immediately drawn into the wild, weird world of Billy and Girl. The first five sentences are so sinfully enticing that the publisher actually chose to emblazon them on the front of the book: "Soon all the kids in England will be pushing up daisies. That's what Girl says every night before I go to sleep. Girl is my sister and I'm scared of her. She's seventeen years old and got ice in her veins. Tonight she reads me my rights." This is the voice of 15-year-old Billy, who goes on to explain that five years prior, their abusive father burned in "the biggest barbecue south London had ever seen...and the most splendid thing he ever did in his life." Their mother took the fall for the fire and was forced to separate from the children, whom she left in the hands of her father. Rather than taking care of them, he resorts to sending money for food every so often. Which is fine by Billy and Girl, who can't stand his lame jokes. Billy says, "It's not good for the young mind to have to endure the wit of the senile."
Deborah Levy explains why she wrote this book: "I had become a mother for the first time and found myself thinking about parents and children and what we need from each other. I was also influenced by many news stories in the UK at the time -- reports of children who ran away from home and parents who abandoned their children. It seemed to me that we never heard these stories from the children's point of view. The personal challenge to me in writing this book was to find a way of making dark and troubling material as comic and surreal as human life often is."
Billy and Girl is a character-driven novel. Billy is a boy consumed by hurt, studying to become the world's foremost psychologist so that breasty blondes will lie on his sofa and tell him their problems. The book he's writing is called Billy England's Book of Pain. But Billy also wants to be famous, an actor on television commercials and a spectacle for daytime talk shows. Girl, on the other hand, with her peroxide hair, wears silver loafers, chain-smokes menthols, and is always anxious for cocktail hour. But she's also consumed with finding their mother and attempts to do so by playing a game she calls "Mom Check." Going door-to-door in family-looking neighborhoods, she knocks and then scrutinizes any motherly-looking woman unlucky enough to answer. Levy explains, "I know a woman who gave up her baby for adoption in the early 1950s. This made her very morose and depressed all her life, in my view. She told me that she imagined one day her son would find out where she lived, knock on the front door, and shout, 'Hello, Mom.' The way she said this made me hold my breath. I knew I was going to use it one day."
Girl's fantasy about finding their mother takes her to the mega-supermarket FreezerWorld, which is packed row to row with potential mothers. She is somehow soothed by the freezer bins full of stiff and frosty foods and the soft voice of the store announcer saying such things as: "When you cut a FreezerWorld strawberry cheesecake, be sure to make a wish. Goodnight to all our loyal customers, may all your wishes come true." Yet it is a stock girl named Louise (which is also Girl's real name) who attracts most of Girl's attention. From behind stacks of canned goods, she watches FreezerWorld chief Mr. Tens correct Louise's technique of unpacking frozen herring. Girl feels a special bond with Louise, though they've never met.
When Billy decides he wants to take his pain across the Atlantic and appear on American talk shows -- "We'll give them our pain and they'll give us their cash." -- he and Girl, with the help of Louise, rob the FreezerWorld's express line till for the money to make the trip. The job is pulled off with barely a hitch. Though Hollywood fortune and fame never come, a transatlantic phone call does. It's from their assumed-dead father back in England, saying he saw an artist's rendering of them printed in the newspaper. What Billy's father secretly tells him on the phone makes him say things about Girl like: "I'm scared of her," and "[she's] got ice in her veins." Upon their return to bloody old England, the mystery surrounding their lives begins to reveal itself through a series of high-adrenaline events that begins with Louise wanting her cut of the FreezerWorld take and ends with a kidnapping that almost turns to homicide.
While Billy and Girl received high praise in Levy's native England, she believes American readers will understand it better than the Brits did. "I have this feeling that Americans might tune in more to the humor. Although some bad things have happened to Billy and Girl in their lives, I never wanted them to be victims. I wanted them to be clever, thoughtful, stylish, sassy -- have insights into their situation. The British middle class has trouble with this idea because of our class system. They just don't feel comfortable with working-class kids being perceptive in literature." Billy and Girl...welcome.
Mary Elizabeth Williams
It's a tale rendered by an author more concerned with scenery than characters, with plot devices than a story. In the end, Levy's novel seems as aimless as its wandering teen-age siblings.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
First published in England in 1996, this darkly humorous, surrealistic rendering of a primal family drama is also an unsettling postmodern portrait of the hurt and rage of adolescence. Fifteen-year-old Billy England and his 17-year-old sister, Girl (real name, Louise), have been on their own for five years, since their father apparently set fire to himself and their mother disappeared. Before that, Billy had successfully made it "his life's mission to steal Mom's love from Dad," provoking his father's beatings and the fateful conflagration. Now the siblings live in a schizophrenic world of pain versus mindless numbness. Billy knifes the seats of cinemas and envisions writing "Billy England's Book of Pain," while fantasizing about "being the bloke in the Häagen-Dazs ads, with good-looking girls" surrounding him. Girl ("there are two of me: one named, the other unnamed") roams suburban London neighborhoods doing "Mom checks," randomly knocking on doors in search of their mother; she also spends time wandering through the FreezerWorld supermarket, listening to "beautiful announcements" about the homey qualities of the merchandise. Through a series of bizarre events connected with FreezerWorld, which is the site of "deep-frozen pain" as well as soothing messages, Billy and Girl learn more about themselves, but the core revealed is itself confused and tragic. The narrative, always teetering on the edge of chaos, occasionally threatens to explode into full-blown violence, even during the desired yet bittersweet reunion with Mom. Though erupting anger dissolves into, or is deflected by, perverse hilarity, the feeling of menace never disappears. An ambitious work by the author of Beautiful Mutants, this complex and touching novel explores the themes of identity and a missing moral center with rare aplomb.
Deborah Levy's Billy and Girl is a novel refreshingly unworried about its own authority. . . . More (or less) than characters, "Billy" and "Girl" are tenacious bubbles of conciousness, boinging together like tethered balloons.
Boston Book Review 6--99
Levy carefully contrasts the brutal mess of Billy and Girl's life with the clean, meaningless exterior world. . . . Billy and Girl's myths of their childhood begin to give way to even more disturbing truths as we are bombarded with answers to mysteries we didn't even know existed. Mysteries in books are usually used to string readers along, but we do not need suspense to keep us going in Levy's novelher powerful language . . . is enough.
Rain Taxi 6-99
Read an Excerpt
Soon all the kids in England will be pushing up daisies.
That's what Girl says every night before I go to sleep. Girl is my sister and I'm scared of her. She's seventeen years old and got ice in her veins. Tonight she reads me my rights.
`Billy,' she says in that voice like turps, `you have the right to complain about the weather. You have the right to promote Billy products when you're famous. You have the right to help me find Mom and you have the right to tell me what happened to Dad. Which one is it to be?'
Yesterday she bought me a present. A pair of stacked red trainers wrapped in folds of white tissue paper. She likes me to look like a baby gangster and I don't mind, but now I have to pay for them. My sister pretends to be retarded sometimes so she doesn't have to speak or react like other people do. Just as you think she is in Neverland, she suddenly springs on you with her white-trash fists.
Girl was in love once. She was nice to me then and bought me a badminton set for us to play in the park. Love made her high enough to sing and jump and swipe the shuttlecock back to me with the toy racquet. Her sweetheart was called Prince, He bought me a water pistol and I shot myself in the ear, up the nostrils, in my heart, on the inside of my thigh, dying for the neighbourhood cats with their spacey eyes.
* * *
`Which one are you going to choose, Billy?' Girl's black eyes always vacant, conveniently giving the impression she is brain-damaged. I am in the womb of mymother who will later disappear without trace. `Don't cry,' Girl chides me, twisting her thin lips.
I am in the womb of my mother. I hear car alarms go off and sometimes I hear my father. He says, `Hello, babykins. This is your daddy speaking. We are looking forward to meeting you, over and out.' I hear cats purring and Girl shouting, `You're late, brother. Come on out!' I don't want to be born. I'm never coming out. Dad tries again: `Hello, babykins, it's your daddy here. Time to face the world like a man look forward to meeting you, son. Over and out.'
Mom used to stroke my head, babying me. I'd like to eat something with onions in 'em. Pizza or soup. Like Mom used to make before she disappeared. The night before she birthed me, she swam in shorty pyjamas and ate cinnamon buns. Life could have been amazing. We could have gone together to the video shop and bought ice cream, jelly beans and micro popping corn. We could have sat at home and watched a film, sprawled on the floor, stuffing ourselves.
Girl says, `No, Billy, that is someone else's memory. We never went to a video shop.'
Yes, we did. When RoboCop says, `Stay out of trouble,' I listen to him, but the trouble is in my head. It's in my chest and the back of my neck. After I was born I howled the hospital down. I howled like the heart that had taken nine months to grow was going to splatter onto the silver stainless-steel tray the midwife was holding nearby just in case.
* * *
I can see myself clearly as I was then. This is how I came to be Brother Billy in the English climate. I started life as a cell. The male and female chromosomes are fusing. I am two cells. Now I am a cluster of cells. Suddenly I am a tiny embryo embedded in Mom's uterine wall. Four weeks old and I'm two millimetres long. I have the beginnings of a nervous system. No fingernails to chew yet. My hands and feet have ridges which will become fingers and toes. A spinal cord has begun to form. Ten weeks and my kidneys have started to produce urine. I weigh eight grams, like a little packet of mince. By the end of the third month I've grown a forehead, little snub nose and a chin. Watch out, family, cos my lips are beginning to move. I'm never coming out. Even to have a go at them. I'm not going to arrive. I wrinkle my forehead in preparation for sorrow and disgust. I'm learning how to swallow and breathe. Mom is being sick on Dad's best Elvis-style shirt. Afterwards she guzzles salt and vinegar crisps helped by Girl who's always got her sticky white fingers in the bag. Twelve weeks old and I can hear her sharp little teeth crunching crisps. I can hear Mom's heartbeat. I can hear her blood whooshing. Mom is crying and Dad is crying. Girl just snivels. I can hear doors banging. Eighteen weeks old and I want to retire. That's a long time to live in my book. I've had enough. No such bloody luck. Mom keeps on eating and I keep on growing. I'm sucking my fingers in fucking dread. Oh God. I can taste something. Dad does his rocker's croon. `Hell-oo, Babykins we're going to call you Bill-ee!' Mom tells Dad she wants him to leave the house and never come back. My eyes are tight shut. I am six months inside Mom and if I was born now I might survive out of her body. I want a good-looking woman lawyer who loves children to take my case to the European Courts. I've got toenails. Mom tells Dad I'm pressing against her bladder and she got caught short. Dad laughs and strokes her belly. That's when I open my eyelids and start to kick. Eight months and my testicles began to descend into the scrotum. I got hiccups. Why? Because Mom's producing adrenaline. It's flooding into the bloodstream. She's frightened. Her fear is leaking hormones into me: I am in biochemical harmony with Mom and I got fear in me too. Now my fingernails have reached the fingertips. I'm going down now, head first. I got a lot of fat laid down ready for the world. Girl is singing something horrible. Mom's got sweet stuff in her breasts waiting for me. Yep, for me. Billeeeeee! Thing is, I won't be coming out to taste it. Oh, no. The weather will be cool out there, I know it. I don't want to arrive. No No No No. Oh God, no! The midwife pats Mom's forehead with a towel. `He'll give in, don't worry, love. He's got the whole family to meet, hasn't he?'
Leave out the formal introductions, won't you. I'm sure the family will make themselves known to me in their own good time.
All normal infants are supposed to smile, aren't they? Laughter is genetically coded into the body. I'm slapping my little white thighs and chortling already.
Dad pulled into a petrol station. He put the pump into his mouth and got five pounds' worth. Then he took out his pack of cigarettes and lit up. It was the biggest barbeque south London had ever seen. My father had never smoked before. This was his first and last cigarette and his suicide was the most splendid thing he ever did in his life. Girl and I have talked about it over and over. We decided he must have bought the pack from the newsagent near the Odeon. Coins cold in his hand. Black secret in his heart. Streatham's lone cowboy without horse or bourbon, just an imagination never expressed until now. All the people coming out of the Esso shop clutching sausage rolls and cans of Fanta fell about screaming. A reporter from a newspaper offered Mom the chance to `open her heart to the world'. Afterwards she bought Girl a Cindy doll with long blond hair, a blue bikini, a little pearl necklace and a plastic Ferrari with silver wheels. We set fire to Cindy one night and watched her melt in front of our eyes. Then I went off to watch Looney Tunes outside the TV shop in the mall.
After I was born Mom took special painkillers because they cut her up at the hospital to pull me out. Remember I didn't want to come out. They cut her and then told her to cross her heels like a cat. `Cross your heels like a cat,' the midwife said, and yanked out the placenta with both hands. I lay on Mom's breast and they stitched her while Dad cried in the corridor, eventually putting his head round the door and whispering, `All right, pet?'
Why don't they all do something about my `welcome to the world' breakfast? Like a smorgasbord of analgesics and a razor blade?
When Mom took me home she examined my fingernails first. `Look, Girl,' she said, `they've grown right to the edge and over.' So I would scratch my face with my sharp nails. Make little fists and raise them to my cheeks and scratch because it upset Mom and made her kiss me more. She'd sit in a blue bucket under the shower, the smell of lavender she had added to the water filling the steamy corridor where Girl and I sat waiting for her. `The lavender fields of Provence, Billy, that's what you can smell,' she shouted through the steam, and Girl and I watched the rain splash against windows, shivering in our second-hand T-shirts.
After she had bathed her birth wounds and done her hair Mom wore a beehive that Dad said was a bit like Priscilla Presley she limped downstairs to make Girl breakfast: banana fritters. Girl wanted banana everything. Banana milkshakes, banana blancmange, banana curry. Mom was a bit nervous of Girl and catered to her compulsions for fear her daughter would weep those catastrophic tears of hers and never stop. When Girl cries the world slows down. It's like her thin white body is going to snap in two because her grief is so total and infinite. In the days we used to go for drives into the country, if she didn't see a horse she'd scream and shout as if somehow this was a bad omen and the sky was going to fall on her head. Dad would get desperate and point to a cow grazing in a field. `There's a horsie, Girl, see?' The lie seemed to comfort her, as if just naming the beast completed the magic circle in her ash-white head, and she would calm down and fall asleep.
Girl has always invented games for me and her to play together. Her favourite used to be the Bolt Game. When she found a jar full of two-inch wrought-iron bolts in the cupboard under the stairs where all the nails and screws were kept, she showed them to me as if she had found gold in a cave. All day she brooded on what to do with them, hiding behind her fringe of ash-white hair when anyone dared speak to her. `It's a pain game, Billy,' she whispered when Mom went out of the room and the next thing I knew she had dragged me outside and was drawing a chalk line on the pavement which I had to stand behind. Then she measured twenty footsteps away from my line and drew another line which she stood behind. The idea was I had to keep completely still while she aimed the little bolts at my head. When they missed and got me on my shins or on my fingertips I was not allowed to cry. It was a pain game, after all, and success was measured by how stoic the person being hit could be. What would it be like never to feel pain? The day Girl broke the skin on my forehead and blood dripped down my face and onto my T-shirt, she screamed, `Don't blink, Billy!' and then hugged me for being well hard. When I pretended not to feel pain, I know that Girl felt it on my behalf. `You're a hero,' she said in her acid-drop voice, and licked the warm blood with her tongue while I pretended to meow like a kitten. Girl's pain game prepared me for being bashed by Dad. Girl was training me up to receive pain. It was her way of protecting me. My very own personal pain trainer. The first time Dad smashed his fist into my kidneys I was seven years old. Mom was out and Girl was in. I hollered and my sister went very quiet. She smoked her first menthol cigarette then. Coughing but no words.
A few weeks after Dad set fire to himself at the petrol station, Mom took me on a coach trip somewhere near Newcastle to meet my grandfather. That's my mother's father. She packed tuna sandwiches and a flask of tea and sat me on her knee in the coach even though I was ten years old, so she wouldn't have to pay for another ticket. I swear I could smell rubber on the tarmac of the motorway and the lacquer in Mom's hair and when we arrived we heard a fat man in a pub sing, `England! Awake! Awake! Awake!' I sat under the little tartan blanket and scratched my eyelids, all the time remembering my dad whispering, `Hell-oo, babykins, it's your father here, over and out,' scratch scratch, and Mom catching my fingers tight in her hands. Grand-Dad talked in whispers to Mom, sometimes leaning over me with his watery eyes and beery breath, checking me out and looking away again.
I swear by the time he had cracked three bad jokes, I thought, Jeez, I really need a fag.
`You are my balaclava angel,' Girl whispers to me as I hold up the mirror for her while she trims her fringe. No, I'm not. I'm a broken-hearted bastard. I want to be the bloke in the Haägen Dasz ads, with good-looking girls in their underwear pouring ice cream all over my big beautiful body. Instead I'm poor, white and stupid. I take my knife into cinemas and stab the velvet seats in the dark. That is my silent broadcast to the British nation. Pain is like lager and Elastoplast. It has made me who I am. There is a history to my pain. It is an experience in search of an explanation but I can't remember what the experience was. There ain't no ointments, surgery or insurance form going to heal my nerves and neurotransmitters. The making and unmaking of pain. Grief is like pain. Sometimes it's hard to experience them apart. I still feel it along the pulses. You can excite pain by touching the parts that hurt. That is what we are going to do.
At night I hide in small gardens outside here and count the TV aerials. I click the heels of my new red trainers three times, take a deep breath, hold my nose, and wait for the wind to take me somewhere better than this.