Synopsis | 17-year-old Billy has just left school with no A levels and he’s desperate to escape middle England. As a grave-digger, he’s working the ultimate dead-end job. Billy’s home life isn’t any better. In the evenings, he observes his dysfunctional family: his Grandad’s engaged to a woman half his age, his xenophobic Dad’s become obsessed with boxing, and he suspects his deeply religious Mum is having an affair.
All the while, celebrities are dropping like flies and Britain is waiting for the EU referendum. Everything is changing, and Billy hates it.
Meeting Eva, though, changes everything. She’s Swiss, passionate about Russian literature, Gary Numan, windfarms and chai tea, and Billy gambles everything for a chance to be with her.
When things start to go wrong, Billy’s journey across Europe involves hitch-hiking with truckers, walking with refugees, and an encounter with suicidal cows. But the further he goes, the harder it is to be sure what he’s chasing – and what he’s running from.
My Thoughts | I cant imagine that when he wrote his debut novel, Phillip Bowne imagined it being published during a global pandemic. There was already a sense of foreboding in the book, considering it’s set in the heated atmosphere leading up to the Brexit referendum where celebrities seem to dying at an alarming rate. Yet the reader knows that things are only going to get worse. So, for me, this book felt like a lifeline in very trying times. I was ready for some light relief, to really laugh with a character, and I certainly did that with Billy. At turns hilarious, then poignant, then darkly humorous, this is just the book I needed to lift me right now.
Billy is a fascinating character with a brilliant story arc; he does some serious growing up throughout the novel. At first he seems a little lost. He leaves school with no plans and his mum gets him a job as a gravedigger – the very embodiment of a dead end job. His family are dysfunctional at best. Dad has a bit of a temper and Grandad (GG) is adding to family strife by planning to marry a woman nobody likes. Bowne creates comedy out of the way this family rub along together, but they’re not one note characters. Bowne knows when to floor the reader with some seriously black humour and when to let us inside these characters and situations with real depth and poignancy. GG has some interesting ways of making money. Billy manages to get an unfortunate nickname at work. However, when we’re party to Billy’s inner world, there’s bewilderment and even sadness at times. The contrast between these feelings, and the hilarious situations Billy can get himself into, are what kept me engaged with his story.
The same can be said about the world Billy finds himself in. Once he finds himself another job, Billy’s world starts to open up. Beyond the realms of his family and village Billy starts to understand that people have very different life experiences than his, often tragic and difficult. He meets Swiss student Eva and experiences the shifts in society due to the referendum from her perspective. She’s unsettled and scared. They form a friendship, one which could turn into something more. This relationship feels very real, it develops slowly and although there are obstacles, I did find myself rooting for them both. When Eva leaves, Billy decides to follow in an attempt to be reunited with her. This incredible trip through Europe adds to Billy’s growth. He encounters Syrian refugees whose terrible misfortune are beyond anything he has experienced. Whether he reunited with Eva or not, this incredible trip will change him forever. I truly enjoyed his journey and found myself laughing out loud at some points, whilst feeling terribly awkward at others – the fish and chip supper made me squirm a bit. This debut shows a deft writing style from Bowne and was uplifting and touching in equal measure.
About the Author
Philip Bowne lives in London and works as a writer for The Wombles, a children’s entertainment brand.
Like his protagonist, Billy, Phil attended a failing and severely under-resourced school in Bicester, Oxfordshire.However, unlike Billy, Phil ended up studying English Literature and Creative Writing at university.
While studying, Phil published short stories in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK, US, Canada and Germany. After graduating, Phil spent time in Europe and the US, working and volunteering in various roles and settings: repairing boats at Lake Como, housekeeping at a mountain lodge in California and working with charity Care4Calais in the former Calais ‘jungle’ refugee camp.
Cows Can’t Jump is Phil’s debut novel, which he worked on while managing a bar in London. As well as a writer for The Wombles, Phil also works on a number of independent writing projects, including a musical set in 1970’s Soho and a sitcom set in a failing leisure centre.