What I recommend: This novel

by Frances Badgett

The Call
by Yannick Murphy
Harper Perennial
2011

What I Read: The Call by Yannick Murphy

Favorite Quote: “Because light takes a while to travel, what we’re seeing is always in the past.”

How It Is Structured: The Call is written in diary-like entries told from the point of view of David Appleton, a veterinarian in rural New England. A log of his farm visits, moments with his family, and his stray musings while driving, The Call follows David from a peaceful life to one of pure torment. Murphy’s use of headings followed by passages is risky—too many of them too close together, and the novel would be peripatetic, breaking the narrative too much to give it substance, thereby drowning it in its own cleverness. Too few entries, and the point of the structure is lost, dragging the narrative along. But Murphy is a skilled writer, and her unconventional approach to the novel enhances the story’s pace, lends the story a tone and style, and underscores David’s engaging and unique perspective. Not only are his visits as a veterinarian lovely snapshots of the rural life surrounding David and his family—a sheep that attends church with her owner; a family so poor there’s nowhere for David to sit when he visits; a man who keeps his cows in his basement—that if this alone were the novel, it would be rich in detail and hold interest for the reader. But Murphy adds the surprising element of David’s imagination, which gives the novel surreal touches and dreamlike moments—a hovering spaceship, the voice of the wind, and the whisper of his house to him at night.

What the wind said at night: I can blow down all your trees. I can make the walls of your house fall in.

What the morning said: I kept the wind at bay.

Normally, this kind of intrusion into a novel with such an involving story would be irritating, but again, Murphy confounds expectations and imbues these little moments with great humor, poetry, insight, and even profundity. These repeated images also hold the novel together, preventing it from fracturing—another danger of a novel told in this structure.

Thoughts on the Tone: Even in its pastoral moments, Yannick Murphy imbues The Call with stark, shocking imagery. The opening is a perfect example of how Murphy weaves in the cruelty of the natural world with David’s calm, clear perspective.

Call: A cow with her dead calf half-born.

Action: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field full of mud.

Result: Hind legs tore off from dead calf while I pulled. Head, forelegs and torso are still inside the mother.

Thoughts on drive home while passing red and gold leaves on maple trees: Is there a nicer place to live?

David’s accounting of his days is stripped bare, more akin to poetry than prose. The predicaments of the various animals—the sick horses in need of shooting; the goat that has been sliced open from birthing a kid—are balanced with David’s matter-of-fact voice, the emotional distance of a vet who has been on many farms and tended to many animals in distress. This use of David’s distance is particularly effective when David’s son Sam is injured in a hunting accident and languishes in a coma. Most of the novel is a world of suspension and waiting while the family keeps vigil over him. David’s cool inner reserve begins to slip as he becomes preoccupied with finding the identity of the shooter. We see David go from calmly tending sheep and cattle, to obsessing about which of the The Calls is from the shooter. It’s an excellent example of how the protagonist’s obsession builds tension in a story that is mostly one of waiting: waiting for Sam to wake up; waiting for his “spaceship” to land; waiting for the shooter to reveal himself. Murphy crafts this story so well, she avoids both the dullness of the suspended action and the melodrama of sudden revelations.

What I Won’t Give Away: What happens next.

What the Sentences Say: The language loops and changes, and incorporates both terseness and lyricism, clarity and circumspection. The structure lends the story a kind of density of detail and imagery as each passage is no more than a few paragraphs. But within those confines, Murphy’s sentences are pitch-perfect, concise, and very moving. For example:

What I tell Sam that I’m trying to figure out: Gravity. I’m not sure it’s a constant. I think it changes. I’m reading books about it, but I’m not any closer to knowing. I think it’s like light. You don’t see light bend. What you’re seeing is space bending around light. I’d like to see gravity. I’d like to try, I said, and then I looked out the hospital window at the moon rising yellow over the mountains.

What I Recommend: This novel. It’s exquisite—moving, interesting, and deeply satisfying.

What I Will Read Next: Signed, Mata Hari and Here They Come by Yannick Murphy

 

Review of 852 Words: by Frances Badgett, Contrary’s fiction editor and a writer who lives in Bellingham, Washington with her husband and daughter.