The debut novel from actor, writer and composer Richard Lumsden is a century-spanning story set predominantly against the changing landscape of London. Beginning in the early 20th century, it moves through the decades with the titular Billy Binns as he reminisces over his long life and the loves he lost and found along the way.
Billy is well over a hundred years old and believes he’s the oldest man in Europe. He’s living out his final days in a care home with nothing to do but look back at his rather chequered past. Knowing his time is almost up, Billy’s one wish is to remember what love feels like one last time. He borrows a typewriter to write his story, recalling a lifetime of romance, mistakes, heartache and loves, some of them great and others less monumental, but still vital to Billy’s deeply personal tale.
Travelling back to the early 1900’s, Billy enlists in the Flying Corps at sixteen and witnesses the horrors of WWI first-hand. Like the inner workings of Billy’s ageing mind, the story randomly shifts between the past and present, moving through the subsequent decades as he goes from a naive teenager, eager to prove his worth, to a young man mentally and physically scarred by the war. By the time he’s middle aged, the scars have appeared on his heart too, as yet another love is lost to ill-fated mistakes and time.
“I have to get this out. I have to get it down before it’s gone for good. While it’s still clear in my head. While they’re all sat beside me, as alive now as they were then, these people I once loved.”
The Six Loves of Billy Binns isn’t your average warm-hearted love story with a happy end. We know where Billy eventually ends up: alone and regretful, his body giving up and his mind not far behind. This prior knowledge of Billy’s current state lends the nostalgic recollections of his younger days an intense pathos that lingers like a dark cloud; chased away during fleeting happy interludes, only to return when yet another misfortune transpires. There’s a deep sense of tragic inevitability as the novel delves into the crux of life, death, love and loss; there are some things we simply can’t change, some mistakes there’s no coming back from, and Billy learns his lessons the hard way.
This melancholy tone pervades the book and it does steal some of the charm from an otherwise evocative tale. Lumsden captures the wartime eras (Billy experiences both WWI and WWII) with a vividness and authenticity that makes it feel like it happened only yesterday. Yet other time periods – such as the free love 60’s, where Billy indulges in some harmless swinging with a Jamaican woman from the Windrush generation – feel forced and shoehorned, thrown in to add a little spice to a story in danger of losing momentum. The more recent the years get, the less interesting Billy’s life becomes – perhaps due to his greatest loves coming so early in the story. Everything else pales in comparison.
Despite lacking the quirky levity that made books like The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry such a success, Lumsden’s debut is a poignant and moving tale that genuinely tugs at the heartstrings. Billy’s is a life well lived, even if his choices are questionable at best, and when the inevitable end comes, don’t be surprised if you’re wiping away a tear or two.
The Six Loves of Billy Binns is published by Tinder Press on 24 January 2019