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A Reading Vocation

"I Must Read, Read, and Read. It is my Vocation." - Thomas Merton

This is where I chronicle my reading life.  I also blog about writing at Lacey's Late-night Editing.


Book 110/100: The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean (Tellt by Hisself) by David Almond

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean - David Almond

I don't really want to start this review by talking about the phonetic spelling, but it so colors the whole reading experience that I feel I really must get it out of the way.

The whole book is written phonetically, and inconsistently phonetically (sometimes one is spelled "won," sometimes 1"). That inconsistency didn't actually bother me because I think when someone is unsure how to spell something, they don't necessarily spell it wrong the same way every time. And while the phonetic spelling is supposed to capture Billy Dean's unique voice, a voice that is mostly untainted by the outside world, it felt a little gimmicky to me. Because even though Billy Dean lived the first 13 years of his life totally secluded from the outside world, that didn't necessarily keep him from seeing books and learning to "write proper-like." I think the voice was meant to make Billy Dean seem a little "otherworldly," which it did, but I'm not sure it was worth the price: the price being that the book was a lot more difficult to get through than it would have been otherwise, and that a lot of readers give up on it altogether. (I kept hoping that as the book went on, Billy Dean would learn more about writing and spelling and the spelling would get more uniform, but no such luck.)

Still, this voice is one of the book's most powerful features, and I actually think just Billy Dean's turn of phrases would have been enough to keep that resonance. He is raised in isolation in what seems to be a basement apartment, only ever seeing his mother and his father who visits occasionally (and who is a priest -- I'm pretty sure that's how this book ended up on my to-read list in the first place). He was born in the midst of a bombing blitz, so only his parents and the woman who delivered him knew of his existence. The story is mostly divided into two parts -- his experience of isolation, and his tentative stepping out into the world.

I found the isolation chapters at the beginning to be more compelling, the way that Billy Dean tried to learn about the world with so little access to it haunting. The book is post-apocalyptic, so there's a bit of that haunting feeling remaining once Billy emerges, but it's not quite as pervasive. There's a lot of magical realism and ambiguity, which seem to be hallmarks of Almond's books from what I've read.

I liked the religious themes, and this book has so many strange, powerful images that I think it could make a really haunting movie. And while it's clearly a masterful work, I'm still not quite sure exactly what to make of it. Except that Billy Dean probably should have gotten an editor before he published. ;)