Book Review: “Billy Sing: A Novel” by Ouyang Yu (@transitlounge2)

Billy Sing: A Novel, by Ouyang Yu, tells the story of William Edward Sing (1886-1943), Australia’s most famous marksman.

Born to a Chinese father and an English mother in rural Queensland, Sing was a subject of racial prejudice. While suffering insults and obscenities from others, he discovered guns, earning prizes and admiration in kangaroo and target shooting.

Ouyang’s poetic prose is raw and brutal, depicting Sing as being stubborn and ambitious. “I come from nowhere. But I’ll go somewhere,” Sing announces. “In fact, I’ll fail every subject at school just to let my free heart rejoice. I’d rather become part of my gun and shoot.”

When the war broke out in 1914, Sing was one of the first to enlist. During the Gallipoli Campaign, he took at least 150 confirmed kills. Contemporary historians put his tally at close to 300 kills.

“Thought was no hindrance to action, at least not on my part, as my eyes were quick and my right index finger quicker,” Sing confides.

“The bullet, long contained in the magazine, brewing, like wine, and brooding, was impatient enough to rush out towards its target, the ‘popping head’, and blasted it to pieces. I, with my own eyes, could see the instantaneous blooming of a flower where the head had been, death revealing its full blood-stained neck, in all its pride.”

He ponders the horrible truth of war: “Would there be someone like me on the Turkish front who mourned the passing of his mate shot dead by me?”

“My heart softened almost as instantly as it hardened. I mustn’t allow myself to wax sentimental just because the same thing happened to our enemy. This was war. For one to live, the other had to die. There was no compromise. The more you killed of your enemy, the less likely your mates were to die. Simple as that.”

Sing was dubbed “The Assassin” and “The Murderer” by his comrades, and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in 1916. In military records, he was commended “for conspicuous gallantry at Anzac, as a sniper”. His triumphs were reported in British and American newspapers.

Yet Sing is presented as a conflicted man – a hero and a killer, both beloved and despised, defiant yet disillusioned, found but forever lost. He reflects:

“The war was a bloody bore. We killed for no purpose. To save myself and my comrades, I had to kill and kill well. I could never escape the thought that I had killed another William or Edward or Sing on the other side, one with a family of mother, father, sisters and brothers, speaking a language I couldn’t understand.”

This is not an easy read, the description perhaps too intense, the portrayal of an Australian son of “Mother England” and “Father Cathay” too honest for the faint-hearted. But it is also a story of courage and unyielding confidence, that of a man who sought to be, and had indeed become, “a gun that shoots right through history”.

Ouyang Yu’s Billy Sing; A Novel was published by Transit Lounge in April 2017. You can find a print copy of the book in your local library.

Note: This book review was originally published under the title “An Australian son of war” by Ranges Trader Star Mail, Easter Special Edition, on March 30, 2021, Page 4. It was the second of a series of three articles featured under the headline “Curl up with a good book”, with this introduction: “The Easter long weekend is the perfect time to curl up with a good book, a cup of tea and a hot cross bun. Star Mail book reviewer Christine Yunn-Yu Sun has three suggested holiday reads — Chloe Hopper’s The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, Ouyang Yu’s Billy Sing: A Novel, and Minnie Darke’s The Lost Love Song.”

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