|(Mick Wiggins for The Boston Globe)|
'The Call' is a poignant portrait of family
Novel about a rural veterinarian cleverly plumbs the truth about kindred’s love and pain
Many readers disdain high-concept novels for good reason: They’re usually more fun to write than to read. But Yannick Murphy’s remarkable new novel, “The Call,’’ succeeds where others fail. The concept? This novel is written in the format of a daily journal; to be precise, the call log belonging to a veterinarian in a small New England town.
“CALL: A horse with lameness.
“ACTION: Drove to farm. The poorest farm I have seen so far. . . . The owner’s boy sat on the rusted seat of a tractor that did not look like it could move but grew up from the ground where it was, pushing itself through the dirt, and had come to rest. Tall grass grew up high alongside its tires, past the height of the wheel wells.
“RESULT: After I felt the horse’s leg, I told the owner about the heat. I told her she would do well to stand the horse’s leg in a bucket of ice water. The woman shook her head. ‘No ice,’ she said. . . .
“WHAT I SAID TO THE WIFE IN BED: Am I getting grayer? The children told me I have more gray here. . . .
“WHAT THE WIFE SAID: No, you don’t have more gray than usual. It’s just that the children are taller. They can see the gray they have never been able to see before.’’
“The Call’’ is a portrait of a family, Dr. David Appleton, his wife, Jen, and their three children: Sam (12), Sarah (10), and Mia (6). When Jen says, early in the book, “Be careful hunting, David. I don’t like it. He’s still so young. You only have one son, you know,’’ we can tell something terrible is coming.
“CALL: My son. I can’t get him fast enough. . . .
“ACTION: . . . I can see the holes in the cloth of his coat, and the goose feathers sticking out from them, wavering in the wind.’’
When Sam is shot by an unseen hunter, he falls into a coma and the Appleton family feels everything that was once stable slip away. And yet, as much as David and Jen fret about Sam’s prognosis (“WHAT THE WIFE SAID I DID IN MY SLEEP: Cried.’’), life in all its tiny details goes on (“WHAT THE TRUCK IS TELLING ME: Check engine.’’). As David makes his rounds to the horses with toothaches and pregnant goats, his community comes into focus. Aging Dorothy, for instance, with her pet sheep, Alice, who lives inside the house. The rich couple with their mansion and Great Dane. Jim Bushway, the careless farmhand who shoots “rock tiger’’ - chipmunks - and leaves them where they fall. With his son frozen in a coma, each member of this small town becomes either a source of information about his attacker or a suspect. The person calling the Appleton home and then hanging up, over and over, isn’t helping matters.
What will become of the wounded son? Why is David seeing spaceships in the night sky? And who is calling him and what does he want to say? This is a suspenseful novel; the format demands that much be left unsaid, so the reader is constantly looking for clues wherever they turn up. Just how suspicious is that careless farmhand? Will the tension in the Appletons’ marriage finally explode? “WHAT MY WIFE CAN DO: Make me angrier than I have ever been.’’ Although nearly all of these questions are answered, they’re not ultimately the point of this novel, because no matter how tragic Sam’s condition, daily life still includes things like lunch, and sick cows, and swim meets. “WHAT I THINK WE MUST BE: Crazy to spend an entire weekend waiting in the gym of a technical school, but I know years from now we will look back and say these were good times, maybe the best because we were with our children all the time.’’
The truthful evocation of family is the real triumph of “The Call.’’ “When we are alone we like to tell each other how wonderful our children are, but it is something we do not tell others,’’ David says, describing a conversation with his wife. “We tell each other with abandon, things we have lately seen in our children that prove how smart and wonderful and cute they are. . . . it’s cathartic, as if we need every once in a while to do this bragging, or so that we remind each other of how right it was for us to have married each other.’’ There is much love in this novel, and just as much truth about the pain and pleasure of family life. “What is taking place is as layered as something in nature,’’ writes Murphy of an encounter between two of her characters. She could well be describing her own clever and beautiful book.
Buzzy Jackson is the author of “Shaking the Family Tree: Blue Bloods, Black Sheep, and Other Obsessions of an Accidental Genealogist.’’ E-mail her at AskBuzzy@gmail.com.