I wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started reading Call me, the latest offering from that tricksy duo, novelist Julian Davies and illustrator Phil Day. But, it soon became clear that what was before me was a coming-of-age story. What, I wondered, was Davies doing writing such a novel? Then I remembered that this was the author who gave us, most recently, Crow mellow (my review), so I decided to relax and go with the flow. Sensible me, because this is a sophisticated take on the genre, geared to an adult audience.
The story starts in the first person voice of a young woman called Caddie, who is in bed with a young man called Pip. They are both in their last year of school, and the story spans the last couple of months of that year, through their eyes. However, the tricksiness starts here, because Caddie’s voice is first person, while Pip’s is third person subjective. Why? An author doesn’t make these decisions lightly, so I usually want to know why. It’s particularly interesting here because this is a male author choosing to write his female character in first person, and the male in third person. I’ll come back to this because right now you are probably wanting to know more about the actual story than these technicalities!
“This is Australia” (Pip’s friend, Stu)
So, the story. Caddie and Pip have been in a relationship for around a year at the start of the novel, but it’s geographically challenged because Caddie lives in the city (in Canberra, in fact) while Pip lives in the country, an hour or so’s drive away. Davies knows whereof he speaks because he too lives about an hour’s drive from Canberra. Caddie’s parents see themselves, according to Pip, as “high middle class”. They both run businesses, her father’s being an investment business called Capital Capital, and her mother’s an art gallery called Sense and Sensibility (because, as she apparently told Pip, “she was lapping up Jane Austen while her friends were still playing with their dolls”). They keep “upgrading” their homes, and they fight a lot. Pip’s parents, on the other hand, describe themselves as “feral middle class”. Sydney escapees, they live in the not-quite-finished house they built themselves; they take a loving but laissez-faire approach to parenting; and they get on well. All this introduces the city-versus-country theme that recurs in Davies’ works, including Crow Mellow and his Meanjin piece about building his own home (my review). It’s pretty clear where Davies’ preference lies!
The majority of the novel takes place over 15 days, and chronicles, in lovely nuanced detail, the tensions that develop in Pip and Caddie’s relationship due to Pip’s decision to leave school only weeks before the end. Their thoughts and feelings are told alternately in chronologically named chapters, like “Day One” and “Day Eight (Still Later)”. Although Caddie is critical of her parents, in the way that teenagers often are, she’s following the traditional path of working hard at school and planning to go to university. She is totally into mobile phones and social media. Pip is a more independent thinker. He’s not interested in social media, and only has a phone because Caddie gave it to him. And yet, in a neat paradox, Caddie records her thoughts in a diary, while Pip records his into his phone! This is pure Davies, by which I mean nothing is simple or straightforward.
So, we have the city-versus-country theme, plus a subtle questioning of modern technology, including our reliance on it and its potential for misuse. A third theme relates to education. Pip’s decision to leave school stems from his refusal to live by external expectations that don’t feel authentic to him. He hates the “petty rules” and, as Caddie explains it, “the kind of society we live in that the education system feeds”. He has no alternative plans but feels incapable of “passively endorsing” a system he doesn’t believe in.
“What kind of person am I?” (Caddie)
Accompanying these more sociological themes are personal, psychic ones. Both Caddie and Pip are deeply concerned with their identity, specifically with what it is to be “a person”. Caddie, living in her “sheltered” house and uncomfortably aware of the material benefits provided by her parents, wonders not only “what kind of person” she is, but, more broadly, “what does it mean to be a person.” This question of personhood is frequently burdensome to her. Pip, however, has a different take, recognising that “he is only one person”. One of the challenges they face is negotiating their own and each other’s personhoods. Late in the novel, when their relationship is floundering, Pip wonders “did the new, distant Caddie undermine and diminish his sense of her as the person he thought he knew?” Meanwhile, Caddie “wonders who Pip is that he can hold this view.”
Call me, then, is essentially a book of ideas that questions, in a lightly satirical way, aspects of modern Australian society, but it’s not boringly didactic, partly because the ideas are explored though some engaging characters. These include two we met in Crow Mellow, making this book a sort of “companion piece”. The characters are the wise Phil Day, a teacher who, cheekily, happens to share a name with the book’s illustrator, and the ridiculously named cynic, Dick Scrogum (aka Scrotes). Scrogum’s opinionated banter and Day’s quiet conversations encourage Pip to dig a little deeper into the reasons for his decision.
These characters, however, are only part of why the book doesn’t become mired in earnestness. Another reason is that, surprisingly, as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that there’s more to it than just Caddie and Pip’s relationship; there is in fact quite a plot developing. Who are the mysterious callers on Pip’s phone and what do they want? Should we be worried about them? And what about the gun that Pip has? It is pretty much de rigueur that once a gun is mentioned in a narrative it’s going to be used, but will it? Is this book not what it looks, but, really, some sort of crime-mystery-thriller? You’ll need to read it to find out.
And now, I’ll return to that question I posed at the beginning about voice. Both first person and third person subjective voices offer easy engagement with characters but can only offer limited perspectives. Telling the story through two such voices widens the perspective, by letting us see Caddie and Pip through each other’s eyes as well as their own. In other words, we get a little touch of omniscience alongside close engagement. But, why is one voice first person and the other third? I’m not sure really, but maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Pip is the main protagonist, and that Caddie, as the “I”, represents both herself and the reader (who is, perhaps, likely to be more like her – female, sincere, somewhat conservative, but also open-minded and keen to explore). By being more directly in her head, we are encouraged to question, as she does, certain assumptions and values. I suspect too that there may be something autobiographical about this novel. Is Pip like Davies’ younger self? And does putting Pip at one step remove provide him with a little space to interrogate the boy he was? Certainly Caddie seems to question who Pip is more than vice versa. I’m probably wrong about this, but at least I’ve given it a shot!
As I say all too often, there is so much to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on the gorgeous landscape descriptions of a region I love. Nor on the clever segues, nor Phil Day’s whimsical illustrations, nor the humour, nor, indeed, what a beautiful book is it to look at, hold and read. However, I’ve written enough for now.
Call me, then, is not only an engrossing story about the psychic growing-up of its protagonists, but one that also offers provocative commentary on both humanity in general and modern society in particular. Them’s big boots, but Davies pulls it off, resulting in a book that’s both intelligent and fun to read.
Illustrated by Phil Day
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2018
(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)