A devil wor­thy of sym­pa­thy

The Crimes of Billy Fish By Sarah Hop­kins ABC Books, 294pp, $ 22.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Sorensen

AFAIR way into this in­tel­li­gent and com­pelling novel, first- time writer Sarah Hop­kins makes a huge de­ci­sion. It’s in the na­ture of re­views not to re­veal what that de­ci­sion en­tails, but suf­fice it to say it threat­ens to alien­ate the reader ir­re­vo­ca­bly.

I thought it was the wrong de­ci­sion and I was deeply dis­ap­pointed, be­cause un­til then Hop­kins had im­pres­sively main­tained her nerve and con­tin­ued her dif­fi­cult course.

But then, even more im­pres­sively, she steers her way through the dan­gers she has cre­ated and her novel comes out the other side sound­ing sure, real and im­por­tant.

The Crimes of Billy Fish be­gins with Billy com­ing up for pa­role. He’s in jail for a vi­o­lent rob­bery; if he gets out early he’ll have to go on a methadone pro­gram and be tested reg­u­larly for drug use. Hop­kins hints, from the start, that Billy will fal­ter — in­deed, fall spec­tac­u­larly — but we don’t know when, why or how far.

Hop­kins grad­u­ally, and ef­fec­tively, builds up a profile of this Billy, and it’s tough read­ing. Billy and his sis­ter Rose were the chil­dren of a vi­o­lent fa­ther and al­co­holic mother, the older boy try­ing to pro­tect his sis­ter from the worst of the abuse. When their mother dies in dread­ful cir­cum­stances, Billy is 15 and he takes off to live on the streets.

A story like this, how­ever well- in­ten­tioned, could be­come tainted by in­sin­cer­ity in so many ways. A child turned bad by the sins of the fa­ther, a man bat­tling against a flawed and over­worked sys­tem of pun­ish­ment and re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion: such a ba­sis for a plot can eas­ily be­come proof only of how car­ing the au­thor is try­ing to be. It’s not pleas­ant, as a reader, to dis­cover you’re be­ing ex­ploited into want­ing so much for things to turn out all right when you don’t com­pletely trust the writer. On the other hand, we don’t get many nov­els that deal con­vinc­ingly, knowl­edge­ably and sin­cerely with crime as a so­cial prob­lem, and Billy Fish scores well on all three counts.

And while we have de­scrip­tions of vi­o­lent acts and a stom­ach- churn­ing drug- tak­ing episode, Billy Fish is not grunge fiction; there is ab­so­lutely no ques­tion that Billy’s drug and crime­dom­i­nated life has neg­a­tive glam­our. But we need to be on his side if this is to work, and Hop­kins, again, man­ages to tread this fine line be­tween mak­ing us feel dis­gusted by our sym­pa­thy for a man who has done some­thing very bad and mak­ing us be­lieve em­pa­thy is pos­si­ble.

This is not a pol­ished novel and has not been worked through suf­fi­ciently for the mech­a­nisms by which the story is moved along to be­come in­vis­i­ble. The low mur­mur of con­trivance in­trudes into some of the scenes, but never enough to dis­tort the voices of Billy and his world. It’s a huge achieve­ment to bring such peo­ple alive in the or­dered, word- con­structed world of lit­er­a­ture.

Hop­kins doesn’t choose the Roddy Doyle method of de­liv­er­ing the shock of rough lives in a ver­nac­u­lar style that dis­rupts con­ven­tional read­ing. She makes the rough re­al­ity work by not try­ing too hard to rub our noses in it. She has a very deft style, as­sured and eco­nom­i­cal.

The man­ner in which she builds the por­trait of Rita, a wo­man who pro­vides suc­cour for Billy, much- needed hu­mour for the story and a life­line of hope for the reader, is del­i­cate. Where Rita could have come out sound­ing like a stereo­type from Neigh­bours , in­stead we grad­u­ally come to ad­mire and care about her.

It would be fas­ci­nat­ing to know where Hop­kins got all this stuff from, but if it’s based on real peo­ple and events, the writer also un­der­stands that a book must stand alone, with an in­tegrity in­de­pen­dent of its source.

Some­thing has to give in th­ese few weeks we share with the sad and tragic Billy Fish; but what Hop­kins de­cides to throw at us is very dis­turb­ing and al­most made this reader not want to go on. But I’m glad I did, be­cause the end­ing is rich with hope, and in­spir­ing.

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