PW Best Books 2011: The Call by Yannick Murphy

Twenty years ago, a friend handed me a collection of short stories called Stories in Another Language by Yannick Murphy. Her voice was spare and taut, and her themes were largely family and death, as I recall. It was a slim book, but the stories resonated beyond the pages.

The Call (Harper Perennial), Yannick Murphy’s newest novel, is also slim, spare, uniquely structured—and absolutely beautiful.

The novel begins:

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 still inside the mother.
Thoughts on drive home while passing red and gold leaves on maple trees: Is there a nicer place to live?
What children said to me  when I got home: Hi, Pop.
What the wife cooked for dinner: Something mixed up.

Your average day for the New England farm veterinarian, David. Murphy (she lives in Vermont and her husband is a veterinarian) utilizes this call-and-response conceit throughout. The “call” is often a farmer in need of veterinarian help, though sometimes, it’s an event, a hang up, or even a “spaceman.”

Yet tension builds, and the seemingly mundane takes on greater significance.

On the first day of hunting season, David takes his son Sam out the woods behind the house, there they each climb into a tree and perch on hunting stands waiting for deer.

Call: My son. I can’t get to him fast enough. He has fallen from the wooden tree stand on our property.

Sam has been shot by another hunter, who apparently mistook him for prey. David drives him to the hospital where he lies in a coma for weeks. During this time David continues to take calls, eat dinners with his wife and two daughters as they await a call from the hospital with any kind of news of Sam’s recovery. And with each visit to a farm, David tries to find the hunter who shot his son.

But then he receives a totally unexpected “call,” that will forces him to make a decision that will change his life.

It’s as if for Murphy, the world sends out a call, but it’s how we respond that defines who we are.