I don’t remember where or when I acquired my copy of Being Billy. It was one of those books I picked up on a whim from my overflowing second bookcase (I have three), seemingly magically deposited there. Presumably I’ve had it for so long I had forgotten all about it. I have quite a few books like that and, being practical, I thought I should either read it now or give it away because I was never going to get around to it. It’s a short book and so, even though the blurb gives no indication of what its pages hold, I decided to give it a go. Thank goodness I did because it was a wonderfully moving and profound piece of work, primarily focusing on the development of its main character.
Billy is a ‘lifer’, a child who is in care for the long haul with little to no prospects of being fostered, adopted or taken back home. He is by no stretch of the imagination an easy kid to take care of. He vandalises property, shoplifts alcohol, lashes out violently at his carers and other kids, refuses to do school work and is generally just constantly rude and angry. Doesn’t sound the easiest character to like either, right? But this changes when we are first shown how he acts around his twin siblings, who are young enough not to remember a time before they were in care. Billy does everything for them (getting their breakfast, sitting outside the bathroom as they bathe, reading them their bedtime stories, waiting in their doorway for them to fall asleep), barely letting the carers do anything.
From the start Billy operates under the assumption that no one really cares about him – or any of the other kids for that matter – and lashes out constantly at the ‘scummers’, the care workers at his home. The book focuses on Billy over a period of several months as he makes a real friend for seemingly the first time (with, gratifyingly, no romantic tension whatsoever), deals with the terrifying prospect of losing the twins, processes past trauma and slowly learns to control his anger. Mostly this is achieved through his changing relationship with carer Ronnie, as Billy begins to trust that he does really care. It’s true that I’m an easy crier, but I don’t think that devalues the tears I shed at this and at Billy’s growth in general.
There’s little plot to be seen, but I often find that that’s for the best with a book focused as much on character as this one is. Don’t worry, though, the denouement is satisfying in its closure, bringing together plot points from throughout in one climactic evening which mostly serves to showcase how much our protagonist has changed. He is still a deeply troubled young man, but the way he deals with his emotions and his attitude towards others have transformed him into someone you can’t help but love.