Joolz Denby,
Billie Morgan
(Serpent's Tail, 2005)

"My name is Billie Morgan. And I am a murderer." These are the words beginning Joolz Denby's Orange Prize shortlisted novel, a brilliantly paced morality tale set among the mean streets and even meaner housing estates of Bradford.

Following Billie's life as a self-styled teenage "outsider," Denby evokes a convincing sense of innocence. The author vividly recreates growing up in provincial England during the 1970s. As Billie blossoms, her love of rock music and her desire to not be like her sisters and mother, with their aspirations of beauty and quaint notions of femininity, lead her to experiment with drugs and the alternative lifestyle offered by a gang of bikers, the Devil's Own. Billie is besotted with the gang and falls in love with one amiable member. Life is great. She has a man who loves and protects her. She no longer needs her overbearing family and is enjoying the freedom of her new life.

Her blissful idyllic life -- along with her relationship -- is well and truly shattered when Billie kills sleazy drug dealer Terry, an unlikeable fringe associate member of the biker gang. But Billie befriends her victim's widow and becomes godmother to her son Natty, both of whom are of the belief that the odious Terry upped and left them, as Billie's father did to her.

Following the act, Billie's husband is so shell-shocked that he disappears, leaving Billie alone to deal with all the guilt and confusion. As she gets on with her life, watching her godchild grow to a young man and watching his mother shrink to a withered junkie shell, increasingly reliant on Billie to overcome even the most simple of tasks, Billie slowly rebuilds confidence in herself. Now, all grown up, she has a shop, selling jewelery and curios. She has a sometimes lover, who -- despite being involved in another relationship -- seems to love her in a funny kind of way. It is an arrangement that seems to suit Billie and she is happy with it. She has rebuilt happiness.

It is all shattered once again when one day she meets her ex-husband and co-conspirator. A shadow of his former self, he reawakens all of Billie's demons. Matters worsen when a national newspaper decides to embark on a missing persons/forgotten people series. Natty is contacted by a journalist who wants to talk about the case of his errant father. The boy believes that national media exposure will bring his father back to him, thus making his life perfect. Despite Billie's caution, it ends in tragedy.

Denby's book is a complex, multi-layered work. At first glance, it is the tale of a woman growing up in the north of England during the '70s with all of the ups and downs of that time. On deeper inspection, though, Denby is presenting a powerfully social piece of writing. With almost Dickensian detail and an adroit deftness, Denby has drawn a group of disparate, desperate, disillusioned people. While displaying obvious humour, the author is not laughing at them (there are many occasion when she can be seen laughing with them, however). In all of the cases though, there is an accuracy and wholeness to the characters and the characterization thereof, which is simply awesome. The central character of Billie is fantastically drawn, a brilliant creation filled with all of the contradictions and uncertainties of a real person. Billie is at times strong, confident and caring, while at other times she is worryingly unsure, weak and selfish. All of this makes for a more rounded and convincing character, and the book benefits enormously from it.

Also, Denby's skill as a storyteller is simply wonderful. She spins the tale out, dropping the reader morsels and nuggets of hints and intimations, before disclosing and satisfying. By the end of the book, one cannot help but smile. It's a rare enough thing to be moved that far.

The book is filled with a number of ghosts; one, that of Billie's father, haunts her life, creating a void or a sense of loss within our heroine. It is this sense of loss that is so pervasive in the book, and reflects the loss other characters have suffered (Natty's father, Billie's husband, etc.).

The tone of the book is very real. Scenarios and incidents occur with the unspecific naturalness of real life. Fortune and fate come with good and bad. Ultimately, Billie Morgan is as taut and as finely wrought as a Greek tragedy. Denby's Dickensian world, filled with a cast of perfectly drawn characters -- urchins and outlaws, working-class heroes and villains -- is the backdrop for a powerful, cautionary tale that unfolds with a delicious, sensitive mastery, and Denby manages to save a couple of savage blows for the final few chapters.

by Sean Walsh
1 October 2005

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