Billy and Girl

billy and girl

& Other Stories has received much (deserved) praise for its publication of literature in translation, but it should not be forgotten that two of its most successful novels were originally written in English. I have already covered the story behind the eventual publication of Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods; another writer whom & Other Stories have returned to the forefront of discerning reader’s minds is Deborah Levy. Her short-listing for the Booker Prize with Swimming Home has been followed by the appearance of a volume of short stories (Black Vodka) and an essay (Things I Don’t Want to Know). Yet, until Swimming Home appeared in 2011, Levy had not published a novel in the UK since Billy and Girl in 1996.

Billy and Girl is about little more than Billy and Girl, two teenagers trapped in their own narrow world. Is their mother dead? Is their father dead? Even their identity as orphans is questionable. Every so often Girl performs a “mom check”, picking a middle-aged woman at random to tell her, “Billy is quite well but not all that well, thank you, and I am as you see me.”

“I know it’s crazy but sometimes I think one day Girl will really find her. Mom will come to the door and Girl will know… We think Dad died horribly. But we’re not completely sure. He might have survived the fire.”

They fantasise about escape to America and attempt to fund this by robbing the Basket Only till at FreezerWorld with the help of Girl’s ‘double’ Louise. (Louise, who shares Girl’s real name, is a kind of alternate version of her, stuck in a dead end job with a no-account boyfriend, yet somehow happier). Unfortunately the £600 they steal is not the life-changing amount they hoped for and, as Billy points out, they would feel just as out of place on the other side of the Atlantic:

“Poor Girl. I mean, can you see her scrawny, white-bread English thighs lazing with the Californian beach girls.”

The robbery does, however, lead to a chain of events that will unravel much of the mystery around their parents’ fate.

Despite its subject matter, do not approach Billy and Girl expecting a slice of grim realism. Levy hovers above her characters with a kind of detached cruelty. Billy’s friend, Raj, talks of the “Stupid Club”, a group of locals who use his shop to debate the issues of the day:

“They stand in a huddle by the fridge pretending to buy a packet of sugar, discussing why it is that some people wash dishes and then don’t think to rinse them.”

Levy’s view of her own characters, at times, is not so far removed. The novel is also not without elements of the surreal: the taxi cabs which fall apart; the God-like voice of FreezerWorld; Billy’s vision of himself as an actor in America – a sex scene in a shower where he refuses to remove his anorak. In all this she is a little like Muriel Spark, though Spark rarely turned her caustic vision on the poor. Whether this is to your taste or not will probably decide your reaction to the novel, but Levy is certainly a writer who deserves some notice. She has spoken before about the fate of novelists whose work falls out of print:

“Yes, being out of print is like a voice that has kind of been snuffed out. When I have finished my next novel and it makes its way into the world, so I hope will the backlist. What I don’t want to happen to me is that thing that happens to so many Women — it’s as if we burst out of the birthday cake without context, history, or past with every book. Better to have body of work than a body covered in chocolate and cream… it lasts longer.”

Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography (as Early Levy) and The Unloved are due to be republished next year.

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