Book review: Billie by Anna Gavalda

(cover image courtesy Europa Editions)

Billie is one of those gleefully seditious and mischievous that subverts all your expectations by packing an emotional wallop the size of the Cévennes mountains in France.

That geographic reference is quite apropos to proceedings because it is where lifelong friends Billie and Franck are trapped after falling off a path while hiking whilst on holiday and into a crevice with the kinds of steeps that stop any thoughts of scurrying right back out in their rock strewn tracks.

Not that Billie, or most especially Franck are in any condition to scramble out anywhere with injuries that mean they have no real choice to wait out the night and hope that Billie, the least injured, can climb out somehow and raise help.

While Franck drifts in and out of consciousness, Billie, fearful that she will lose the one person in her mostly hitherto blighted life who has loved and cared for unconditionally, a clear case of found family triumphing over the severely lacking biological one, recounts how they met, what they have meant to each other and why this unexpected end to their holiday can be the way their friendship ends.

Told with the same savage wit and disdain for the world at large that has defined Billie throughout her life and sustained through some bleak periods, Billie is one of those revelatory texts where someone’s lie doesn’t so much flash before their lives as allow itself to be recounted with verve, humour and a mounting sense of desperation.

“I didn’t say anything but I didn’t want to do it. Not because I had stage fright, but because life has taught me not to ask too much of it. What we had just experienced was a gift. Now, that’s it. We’d put it all out there, so enough. Leave us in peace. I didn’t want to risk ruining it or wrecking it. I had so few pretty things and I loved our performance so much I no longer wanted to show it to anyone. (P. 68)

What is so rewarding about this small but powerfully packed novel is the way in which it begins as what appears to be a simple case of two very good friends trapped in an invidious position, awaiting rescue and hoping for the best but fearful for the worst (well, the one that’s conscious anyway).

It might seem like one of those classic survivalist stories where all the great secrets are spilled but in reality it’s more about how one friend tells the other over and over in ways both heartbreaking and funny how much he has meant to her.

The reasons this works so well in Billie is that Gavalda establishes who these two people are very quickly and with marvellously engaging efficiency, testament to how talented a writer she is.

Well within the first page, we know who Billie is – wise, witty, life worn but hopeful, sad and eternally devoted to Franck who may annoy the hell out of her at times but who is, in all the ways that count, family, friend and the best part of a life that has not often been kind to her.

Billie comes from an abusive household and when she meets Franck at school as they’re cast in a school play and have to rehearse together, she discovers not only that he is a good and kind person but that he can be counted when so few people in her life can be.

Anna Gavalda (image courtesy Europa Editions (c) M. Heinry)

It is revelation to the young girl who thinks that she’s absolutely on her own in life and it is a joy watching her slowly but surely come to depend on Franck just as he, for reasons borne of his own dysfunctional upbringing, comes to rely on her.

They soon become the sorts of friends who transcend the bog standard meaning of friendship, laudably wonderful though it is, and through lives that takes them far from home and to Paris where both are able to realise their creative dreams – Franck’s is long-held, Billie’s newly-realised – they are always there for each other.

Not perfectly, of course, because they are human and if there is one thing Gavalda is at pains to do, it is to ground their friendship in the realness of people who aren’t protagonists in some sort of inspiring movie-of-the-week tale of overcoming the odds but broken, fallible people who don’t always get it right but deeply, desperately want to, especially when it comes to their friendship.

This makes their emotionally intimate night spent in the crevice all the more poignant and resonant because they feel like real people who are trying to fashion something good out of lives that have seen more than their fair share of the bad.

“I told him we had nothing to worry about. That everything work work for us. That he didn’t need to be afraid of Paris, even less of Parisians because they were all dull and all slight, that a flick of the finger was enough to knock them over. That people capable of paying €3.20 for a small coffee would never pose a danger for us. So he shouldn’t worry. The fact that the land we came from was rotting in shit had at least one advantage for us: we were sturdier than they were. Much, much sturdier. And braver. And we were going to whip them all.” (P. 119)

As you might expect, much of the subject is pretty intense and emotionally hard-hitting but Billie is, thanks to the titular character’s cheekily avuncular approach to everything, borne you suspect of the if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry approach and a defensive need not to let the pain push in too hard and too deeply.

But faced with losing Franck, Billie opens her heart up wide, and while she maintains her devil-may-care sense of vibrantly bad ass humour and willingness to challenge the world at every turn, she is also surprisingly vulnerable about how much Franck matters to her.

Thus, Billie becomes far more than a simply tale of survival in the mountains; it becomes far more expansive than that by a considerable margin as their moment of physical peril causes Billie to reflect on years of existential peril and how they have been each other’s saviours in that regard.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that they will survive their slide down the mountain but you hope they do because if ever two people deserve a break, it’s Franck and Billie.

But you’re also rooting with all your heart for them because Billie is just so damn, lovably likeable – you want someone who can take what the world has dished up to her and emerge relatively intact (but not perfectly so; again Gavalda is all about honesty and truthfulness and not painting people as overcoming saints) – and you want her to live, you want Franck to live on with her and you want their perfect found family universe to carry on through long and happy lives.

Quite how it all ends is naturally something that must be left to the reading, but it is safe to say that Billie will reward you in many big and small ways; it is an emboldening story of survival and love and devotion, not always perfectly expressed but always there, which is grounded, real, heartbreaking but reassuring because it affirms that something or someone doesn’t have to be perfect to save you many times over.

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