To be honest, when Being Billy appeared through my door I pretty much instantly dismissed it. I read YA mostly to try and escape the real world and a story about a kid in a care home really doesn’t fit that bill. However, an impassioned email from the publisher encouraged me to give this title a shot and I am glad that I did.
Billy Finn is a lifer – a kid who has been in children’s care home longer than he was ever with his own family. Child of an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather, he is now fifteen and has been in care since the age of seven. After a recent and disastrous adoption attempt it looks unlikely that he will ever be placed with a family – he’s in for good. The only positives in Billy’s life, that he can see, are his younger twin siblings and his new friend Daisy, another teenager with a less than perfect past.
Without wishing to understate, Billy’s had a pretty shitty life so far. At only fifteen he’s had to deal with more hard knocks that most adults I know. It stands to reason that he would be angry at life – and he’s furious. Furious at a mother who stood by while her husband beat him; furious at a care system that attends to his needs yet not to his cares; furious at the prospective adoptive parents who let him down when he needed them most and especially furious at the carers who are able to step back into their perceived happy families at the end of each shift. Billy is so angry that he can no longer see past this fury to anything else – all he perceives is a world full either of people who have either abandoned him and betrayed his trust or people who will surely do so in the future. His life is bleak - bereft of hope - and he sees no reason why this should change. He’s a difficult character to like and an easy one to pity. At several points during the novel I found myself frustrated that he consistently refused to see the good in many of those around him but it’s easy to see why he can’t – he’s too scared that any faith he invests in his fellow man will be thrown back in his face again. However, Billy has real potential – he’s clearly intelligent and has brought up his two much younger siblings with undue care and affection. As a reader you can see that he’s a nice bloke underneath all that anger but it’s hard to envisage a sparkling future for him - he's just got too much to overcome.
The secondary characters in this book are all strong and multi-faceted, which is an achievement considering they are all viewed through Billy’s less than objective eyes. The twins are an excellent example of children yet to be embittered by their situation while Daisy ultimately portrays a more positive care experience. Of the several social workers and carers that appear throughout the story, Ronnie and Dawn are the most interesting. Ronnie is exceptionally well written and his relationship with Billy moved me to tears at points – he perfectly personifies what I have seen in friends who work in social care: frustration at a system that is hopelessly inadequate and genuine affection for their charges. While Ronnie has been in the care business for many years, Dawn is a young social worker yet to be beaten down by what must often be a thankless job – she, more than any other character, signifies hope for the future.
The plot of Being Billy is almost superfluous to what is essentially a moving portrait of social care in Britain. Still, Billy’s story is interesting, heartbreaking and gripping with many facets of his experience not being fully revealed until the climax of the novel. Most gripping, though, is Billy’s slow (and never fully resolved) realisation that everyone has at least one sad story to tell and tears to go with it. With this realisation, Phil Earle skilfully leaves Billy in a place that suggests that his future may be brighter than first assumed.
I’ve got a guest post to run from Phil (up later today) in which he’s going to tell you all about how he really wanted to write a fantasy novel. I'm sure he could - his writing style is fantastic and his storytelling ability beyond question. However, I’m glad that for his debut novel he chose to use personal knowledge of being a carer to such great effect. There are nearly 90,000 children in Britain being cared for in group homes or by foster parents - Being Billy may not be a happy nor easy read but it is an important and thought-provoking piece of writing that draws much needed attention to the kids on our own doorstep who it is so easy to overlook.
Being Billy is available now - thank you to Puffin for sending me this title to review.