The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean by David Almond
Billy is an illegitimate child, born and kept in secret. In justification of his confinement, he becomes the subject of a moral experiment to create a human untouched by the evils of the world. His only human contact is with his parents. But after the disappearance of Billy’s father, Wilfred, he is released from the room in which he has been isolated for thirteen years.
Billy’s very focused fascinations – with birds, blood, stars, angels, hair… –bloom out into the newfound boundlessness of the universe.
Billy is not like any child and yet he is just like every child – he still has to learn about God and to have the birds and the bees (‘the mistry of the fish and the eggs’) talk with his mother and he still has to learn to walk and write – hence Billy’s poor spelling throughout. It is only that Billy’s is a belated and very sudden process of discovery in which his childhood is squeezed into his teenage years. This compression of his coming of age is a continuation of his physical compression, growing weak and frail in cramped conditions. Billy’s ‘world’ had been four walls, a closed door and a window. He is entranced by the square of sky he can see. On just one occasion his mother accidently (on purpose?) leaves the window open and he gets a taste of the outdoors:
‘For the first tym in my life I felt rane farl down on me. I turnd my fase to it. I felt the sharp swete isy ping of drops of warter on my skin. I lickd it wer it fel upon my lips and cheeks.’
This is Billy’s baptism into the world he has never known.
Like any child learning to make sense of the world, Billy must come to terms with where, or who, he has comes from. Most of the time it all seems a bit much. Looking at the stars Billy wonders:
‘How could they be so big and fit into such a little windo? How cud they fit into my eyes? How cud they fit into my little hed?’
His interest in space is perhaps a consequence of his own lack of space. Whilst he is contained, Billy’s bafflement is amplified, and his default reply to any question or line of thought is ‘I don’t know’, but upon his release his responses become varied and wild and imaginative: ‘ “What you doing Billy?” laffs my mam. “Turning into a sugahed” I say’. The ‘sugahed’ is this wonderful child, growing up and away from the suppressed, ‘emptyheded thing’ of his captivity.
The book plays with repulsion. Like when Billy amalgamates animal corpses to form his hybrid ‘mowsburd’:
‘I got the scissors and I cut little holes in the sholders of the mows. I got the wings of the burd & stuck them into those holes….the blud of the mows trickled down my fingas & the stink of the wings mixd with my breth but I had made sumthin new & speshul…’
Billy’s destruction of the dead animals is his power of creation. His impulse is experimental and ambitious rather than depraved and so our disgust is neutralised. It is grotesquely aesthetic.
Billy has the abilities of a mystic, and he becomes renowned for being able to communicate with the dead. He wonders whether he will encounter his absent father during his sojourns into the afterlife but Wilfred turns up in real life, set on some kind of reckoning…
This is a book for thinking about parents who have done more harm to their children than good; about child development and the stilting of it; and the renewal of life, through reproduction and creative energy.
An extract from The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean is published in the latest issue (#43) of The Reader magazine.