Though I am always open to new authors and ideas, occasionally I come across something that defies my expectations from the get-go and leaves me more than a little confused. I read for entertainment more than education these days, simply to escape the everyday into the fantastic. But though Billy Moon by Douglas Lain is definitely in the realm of the fantastic at times, its strange, winding journey somehow kept me guessing and engaged all the way to the end.
Billy Moon is described as a “magical realist novel” and that sums it up nicely. I won’t say that it’s “urban fantasy” as such, but delves into the strange world of dreams and expectations for a few characters in the year 1968. The book focuses on two main characters exploring the turbulence of France during the late 1960s: civil unrest, worker strikes, student uprisings, etc. And Lain thrusts us into the thick of things from two very different points of view.
First, through the eyes of the grown-up Christopher Robin from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. Christopher Robin Milne is a well-known figure who always seemed to be in the shadow of his famous father. Though he grew up, served in World War II, had a family, and owned a bookstore in Dartmouth, England, he was never far from being asked about his father. Shoppers were constantly asking about the stories of his childhood that gained a worldwide fan base and that “Silly old bear.”
Second, through the eyes of Gerrard, a student at Nanterre University. Gerrard has a unique perspective on the world, believing that he can affect it through harnessing his dreams. He becomes involved with the student demonstrations against De Gaulle and gains a girlfriend in the process, Natalie, who seems just as lost as he is. They explore their youth in the chaos of the student/worker revolution and never seem to figure out where they fit in.
As we are introduced to Christopher and Gerrard and their lives become entwined, I think it is the historical context and personal nature of the storytelling that kept me reading. Even as Christopher is going through a bit of a mid-life crisis and finds himself in an the madness of national unrest, he stays relatively steady through it all. His was a journey of rediscovery in the end, though I never was sure if he truly changed or simply wanted to. Gerrard on the other hand is tossed like a corked bottle on a stormy ocean from crisis to crisis, riding the waves from incident to incident in a strange haze that reminded me a bit of a friend who dropped acid in college. I couldn’t help but feel that Gerrard needed a minder through most of the book.
The historical and philosophical points of view scattered throughout the text offer a unique perspective on a time of social unrest. Lain introduces us to some of the work of contemporary figures as the story progresses. We meet the ideas of author Francoise Sagan through Natalie’s exploration of his novel of sexual exploration, Bonjour Tristesse. And we meet Guy Debord, a French social writer of the time with one foot in art and the other in political revolt, as a character in the story.
Ultimately I think it’s a very intriguing story that toys with perceptions, a bit of the fantastic, and a historical period rife with controversy and upheaval. I became invested in poor Christopher Milne’s tale and wanted to see how it would turn out. And I took a ride with Gerrard and Natalie along the way. It’s a tough book to sum up past that. I’m sure I spent much of the text lost in the philosophy and history Lain was trying to explore, but kept coming back to Christopher time and again.
Did I enjoy it? Yes, especially an entertaining interlude with William the bear from the National Zoo. I’ll be curious to see what else Douglas Lain writes as his career has just begun.