Reviewed by Rod McLary
The 1944 film Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer introduced the term ‘gaslighting’ to the world. In the film, Ingrid Bergman plays a woman whose husband [Charles Boyer] is attempting to convince her that she is going insane by creating various inexplicable events such as the gas lights dimming for no apparent reason [hence the term ‘gaslighting’], footsteps in the attic, items going missing and reappearing, and so on. Ultimately, he is unsuccessful primarily due to the intervention of a third person [played by Joseph Cotton].
‘Gaslighting’ is now a part of the urban vernacular and, in particular, is frequently used in social media. Essentially, it means attempting to make another person feel confused and uncertain by presenting false information to the victim, making them doubt their own memory, perception and quite often, their sanity.
Call me Evie is in some ways a novel which has ‘gaslighting’ as its subtext. In common with the film, a young woman is persuaded that her memories and perceptions are unreliable and in their place another version of certain key events is given to her. When she challenges these false memories fed to her by someone she should be able to trust, she is accused of being ‘unwell’, not herself or confused.
Evie [not her real name as the reader discovers further in the story] – now seventeen years old – is taken by Jim to a small town in New Zealand’s north island. Neither Evie nor the reader knows who Jim is or how he knows Evie or, indeed, what their relationship is. What is known is that Evie has been taken from her home town Melbourne because of some terrible thing she is supposed to have done there. Although Jim assures her that she is in New Zealand for her own safety, Evie is essentially a prisoner in the isolated beach house to which she is taken. Locked in her bedroom at night and under constant surveillance by security cameras which provide live feeds to Jim’s mobile phone, there is little that she can do that is not immediately known to Jim.
There are two key questions facing the reader – what is this terrible thing that Evie is supposed to have done; and who is telling the truth? The answers to these questions are gradually revealed through the course of the book.
The book is divided into five parts – each with an evocative title such as ‘Shadow and Heat’ and ‘Out of its Misery’. Interestingly, each part also has a question for the reader which seems straight out of Psychology 1 such as this one from Part One –
In the past month, how much time have you spent thinking you will not live a long life?
0 – none; 1 – a little; 2 – some; 3 – much; 4 – most
The reader may find in the title of the part and its question a hint of what can be expected in that part.
Chapters are entitled alternately ‘Before’ and ‘After’ – that is, before and after the terrible event. The ‘before’ chapters provide information about Evie and her early life. The reader is introduced to her childhood, the loss of her mother, her school friendships and later her relationship with Thom – who turns out to be a key character in Evie’s story. But even her first memory – that of a traumatic event when she was a toddler – is not really her memory but one imposed on her by her father.
The fragility of memory is a constant theme through the book. As Evie says in relation to her memory of a particular event –
The memory is like something physical, a scab I can worry, something I can make bleed again .
The ‘after’ chapters focus on Evie’s experiences in New Zealand and her attempts to recreate the events which led to her being there. She takes whatever opportunities she is given to reach out to the local people for their help for her to escape. They, however, seem to be convinced that she is confused and disturbed and, in the end, they are of no help to her. Dazed and confused, she is taken back to Melbourne where the true nature of the terrible thing she is supposed to have done is revealed. But, is it? There is more than one twist to Evie’s real story.
Altogether, Call me Evie is a thriller in the same vein as Girl on the Train and in both the truth is gradually revealed. There are one or two twists which are not foreseeable and these add a frisson of real tension and shock to a book which starts off slowly but gradually builds tension as Evie – and the reader – move towards the final dénouement. Call me Evie is a reasonably enjoyable book and it will be interesting to see further books from the author.
JP Pomare is an award-winning writer whose articles have been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, Takahe and Mascara Literary Review. He was born in New Zealand but now lives in Melbourne. Call me Evie is his first novel.
by JP Pomare
ISBN 978 0 7336 4023 0