Cows Can’t Jump by Philip Bowne – Billy makes many discoveries in a gentle growing up comedy

Cows Can’t Jump by Philip Bowne

Billy is desperate. He has made a mess of his GCSEs, his relationship with his parents is difficult, and he cannot find a job. Well, apart from being a gravedigger, which is a more exacting job than might be supposed. Billy is a young man who thinks deeply about things, and in this funny and fascinating book Billy’s voice narrates a story of first love, family idiosyncrasies, and an unusual progress through Europe. This is a very readable book of Billy’s reactions to those around him, ranging from his gravedigger colleagues to the strange and amazing people he encounters on his journey to find Eva. This is a fascinating story of contemporary issues as seen through the eyes of a teenager who is given real insight and the noticing of details. Frequently funny, flowing beautifully and occasionally poignant, this is the book of a Britain affected by the Brexit vote and Europe in all its variety and challenges. Not for the nervous, Billy learns about drinking, people who have wild ideas and family members who develop their own obsessions. It is a book about learning of life from the older people he encounters, but also the varieties of consideration that people can show for others. I was impressed and pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this brilliant book. 

Billy’s philosophy of finishing school before A levels appears on the first page “I don’t think anyone ever knows what they want to do. People pretend”. In the first hint that this book will tackle even religious belief, Billy explains that he gets his first job digging graves via his mother’s assiduous church attendance. Teased like many in their first job, Billy meets three men who he calls “the Russian Dolls” and remembers their humour. His parents are stunned when his grandfather announces he is going to remarry a much younger woman, and his father takes up boxing. Billy’s job search takes him to be an assistant at a summer school, where he meets children with problems. He also meets Eva, and it is the attempt to keep his relationship going with the Swiss ecowarrior that propels much of the novel. His progress meets with highs and lows, extraordinary meetings and some dangerous encounters. One of my favourite scenes is when a smoke alarm causes trouble for Billy’s father, and his reaction to the noisy item.

This is an impressive book though there are no mysteries, crime or even complex plot. It is the story of people, in all their humour, variety and desperation. Billy is an ordinary person in circumstances that sometimes spiral out of control, and there is one group of people that he encounters that show the deeperation faced by many thousands of people to this day. The writing is lively and vivid as Billy gives a running commentary on his thoughts and concerns, his problems with money, language and transport, his worries for various people. There are running jokes such as the meaning of someone’s name, his mother’s groups, his father’s obsessive behaviour. I recommend this book for its contrasts, its challenges, and its picture of a young person trying to cope with the twenty first century