A renowned children’s author goes mainstream…

The True Tale of the Monster Billy Deanby David Almond

David Almond’s first novel, written for older children, was Skellig (1998). It parallels the stories of two children who find and help an ailing creature who may or may not be an angel, with that of the boy’s little brother who is ill in hospital. It won loads of prizes and has become a staple text of teacher training courses – I read it a few years ago when I was considering applying for a PGCE teaching course. It was a good story, and challenging too in its scope, but it’s true to say that although I enjoyed it a lot, I admired it rather than loved it. When I read that he had written his first novel for adults, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, as I felt it could be equally challenging, which brings me to The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean.

First off, it immediately became clear that this novel was being marketed as a crossover book rather than a purely adult one – the YA cover is on the right. Content-wise there’s moderate swearing and sexual references, and some strong violence.

Secondly, it’s a novel written as a first person account by a teenager who has never learned to read or write as we do – his spelling is largely phonetic. I thought I’d find this irritating but I quickly got used to it and, with practice, Billy’s reading and writing improves over the course of the story. There were a few inconsistencies in the spellings, particularly near the beginning where the phonetic talk is densest but I could ignore that.

The setting is a bombed out village in an unspecified war-torn country, similar to England’s north-east and Scottish borders. The time is now-ish – maybe a few years into the future. Those who remain in the village of Blinkbonny try to carry on life as normal. Veronica Dean is a home hairdresser, much loved by all her clients, but she has a big secret. She has a son – Billy. Billy has been brought up in isolation by her, living only in the back room. The only other people who know of his existence are Mrs Malone who helped to bring him into the world – and his father, who comes to visit now and then. Billy is a good little boy, waiting patiently at home for years while his mother works and looking forward to those visits from his father.

But now he’s a teenager, and it’s time for him emerge from hiding. Mrs Malone has plans for him, for she believes he’s the ‘anjel childe’ as Billy puts it, that he has a gift. Told by Billy, we find out his truths: the story of his childhood, his begetting, why he was hidden, and who his father really is. Once he is introduced to the real world outside his room, we also find out what he makes of it, and it of him. I must admit, it did bug me why Billy’s mother had appeared to teach him nothing during his hidden years in his room – what did the poor boy do all that time? It was amazing that Billy grew up to be such a compliant boy, coming to terms with his eventual freedom rather than running at the first chance, however he will show that he has metal underneath.

Comparisons abound in this novel: Billy is unknowingly imprisoned for his childhood like the boy in Emma O’Donoghue’s Room, however his mother is not incarcerated, she is at least partially free. Billy’s language and coming of age story did bring Russell Hoban’s brilliant Riddley Walker to mind – but that was set millennia ahead, and the language had (d)evolved to reflect the loss of understanding of technology, whereas Billy is just technically illiterate.

The author’s decision to use the phonetic spelling may be off-putting to some readers and maybe wasn’t strictly necessary – Billy could have dictated his story rather than write it down. This also slowed down the action and it didn’t always feel that there was enough to it for me. Although Billy is no angel, they obviously fascinate Almond, and religion – for good or bad – underpinned this novel all the way through which did give a spiritual dimension that was interesting. Ultimately  this novel was another case of an intriguing read, but a book which I didn’t love. (6.5/10)

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My copy was kindly sent by Penguin – thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean – pub 1st September by Penguin Viking/Puffin, Hardback, 256pp,

8 thoughts on “A renowned children’s author goes mainstream…

  1. LizF says:

    I read Skellig when my daughter read it at school as she was intrigued by it, but I think that she enjoyed it more than I did.
    I certainly respected it and appreciated the challenge it offered but I can’t say that I loved it.
    The premise of this new book is interesting but I’m not sure I want to have to struggle with something written phonetically which sounds a bit contrived really, so while I might take a look at this if it crosses my path, I think it’s unlikely that I will search it out.
    I suppose I should read more challenging fare than I am at the moment but the combination of work and home means that when I do get chance to read without interruption, I look for a good story to get lost in rather than something that is going to make me work!

  2. gaskella says:

    We seem to have had the same reaction to Skellig Liz. I was probably hoping that this new book would make me love Almond, but not this time, although I did enjoy it.

  3. Tomcat says:

    The biggest problem I had with this book was that’s it’s fundamentally derivative/unoriginal. If you’ve read ‘Room’, ‘The Road’, ‘Riddley Walker’, (let’s face it, 3 mega-bestsellers) then you won’t find anything new here…


  4. Nana Fredua-Agyeman says:

    I am also bothered by such writings. The ones I’ve come across are in conversations. And my worry had always been this: someone who cannot speak English would speak his local language. If you’re translating it, why do you mistranslate it because the local language would be spoken with perfection.

  5. Teresa says:

    Skellig was my first and last (to date) Almond, I read it last year and it left me feeling flat and unsatisfied. A bookish friend is sending this one onto me, she enjoyed it for the most part. I will give him one more go and if I don’t really like it, I will give up on our relationship! 😉

  6. Biblibio says:

    I don’t think I ever got around to reading Skellig, but I did read Almond’s Kit’s Wilderness without really getting the point. I’m not particularly inclined to give Almond another shot and this review seems to indicate that I won’t like this “adult foray”.

    • gaskella says:

      Almond does seem to be revered. Haven’t quite worked out why other than that he’s from the NE and his novels have a strong sense of place…

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