Call Billy 07899 232007 BY SAM MCCOLL McEllisons, £8.99
SET entirely in Edinburgh’s well-todo New Town, Sam McColl’s self-published debut novel takes its readers to some quite harrowing places in its depiction of a family in meltdown.
The Gillespies – Rachel, Andrew and their children Abi, 15, and Callum, 7 – are the casualties of a perfect storm of circumstances that will test their strength as a unit to its limit.
They have only recently moved to Edinburgh, after Rachel suffered a breakdown which convinced them to make a fresh start, but their hopes for a quieter life quickly go awry. In the aftermath of a disastrous party, 40-year-old Bill Nighy lookalike Andrew reveals to Rachel’s mother that her daughter’s confrontational behaviour is the result of being sexually abused by her father when she was a child.
This bombshell concerning her late husband brings on a series of mini-strokes that render the old lady incapable of looking after herself.
Rachel, meanwhile, has enrolled at the University of Edinburgh as a mature student and embarks on an affair with fellow student Ryan, a heavy drug user who is keen to avoid shady characters from his past, although it’s clear he can’t stay off their radar forever.
The threat of serious violence from drug dealers forms a menacing backdrop to the Gillespies’ domestic troubles, raising the stakes of Rachel’s increasing dependence on her unreliable new lover and the copious intake of drink and drugs which is steadily blotting out the realities of her situation.
With Rachel having left the marital home, Andrew is trying to keep the family ship afloat, reassuring Abi and Callum that everything’s going to work out. In reality, he’s not coping well at all.
Callum, who has been flourishing at his cutting-edge school, is starting to misbehave, and there’s a worrying situation at Andrew’s work, where some sleight of hand involving soil samples looks likely to have serious legal repercussions. Under this kind of stress, even a mild-mannered, well-meaning chap like Andrew can make bad, even cruel, decisions.
While older characters like
Andrew and Ryan can, and do, wistfully hark back to their childhoods to account for how they turned out, Abi and Callum are too young to have that kind of perspective.
Abi’s traumatic childhood is happening right now, as she vacillates between Andrew’s listless attempts to keep his kids’ spirits up and the “roll Mummy a joint” environment of Rachel’s new flat, and her anguish feels particularly raw and immediate.
This isn’t an autobiographical novel, but it has been shaped and informed by McColl’s experiences of growing up in a violent household, being orphaned and undergoing years of therapy to unlearn old coping strategies. Consequently, she shows a rare insight into the dynamics of a dysfunctional household and, crucially, the sense of proximity to both psychological and physical harm.
Written with a great deal of emotional intelligence and honesty, Call Billy is a novel that doesn’t pull its punches, in which every development proceeds from the last with a horrible, gut-punching inevitability.