Crow Mellow by Julian Davies and Phil Day
January 10, 2015 — 2:57

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Australian literature fiction writing literary communities literary fashions  Comments: 6

My review of Crow Mellow was published in the Fairfax Press today.

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The back cover blurb consists of two sentences. ‘This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.’

While only the name of the writer, Julian Davies, appears on the front cover, Phil Day’s drawings are an essential part of the reading experience, and so I think it’s fitting to include both names in the title of this post.

Most often, the drawings surround the text; sometimes an illustration occupies a whole page, and half of the adjoining one, so that the words are nestled within it. Of course, this kind of reading experience is familiar to us from children’s picture books.

Day’s drawings are often ironic, sharp, and poke fun at themselves as well as the fictional characters they depict. Since I’m writing this post on January 10, 2015, I can’t help being aware that any cartoon or satirical illustration has acquired a whole new depth of resonance this week, and will probably retain it for quite a long time to come.

Who is being satirised in Crow Mellow?  As I say in my review, it’s a bunch of people staying in a rich man’s country house. Crow Mellow is modelled on Aldous Huxley’s debut novel, Crome Yellow, published in 1921. Davies’ protagonist echoes Huxley’s – an aspiring writer beset by self-doubt. In both books, the wealthy host is writing a family history. There is a beautiful young woman with whom the protagonist is in love, and a bitter, wordy individual, who acts as a kind of chorus, in the tragic sense, to the mostly frivolous proceedings.

In an interview with Sally Pryor, Julian Davies talks about writing and publishing these days, and in particular Finlay Lloyd, which he established as a non-profit publishing venture in 2005, initially as a partnership with four people.

‘”The thing I realised is what a hidebound set of conventions book publishing is bound by, and literary people don’t even think about it,” (Davies) says. “And sadly, often literary people aren’t very visual and most books are horribly over-designed. Even the better publishers, the books are so covered with gumph because everyone’s so scared of their book not selling. They cover it and smother it, and there’s no room for designers to really design.”‘

‘By the time Davies had become fed up with mainstream publishers, Phil Day and his then-partner were already producing handmade books in small editions as Finlay Press in Braidwood. With Davies, they decided to start publishing books together, and their great friend, the artist Robin Wallace-Crabbe, was also keen to be involved. But eventually Day and his partner split up, Wallace-Crabbe drifted away from the process, leaving Day and Davis to their own joyful devices.’

Pryor’s interview is informative and interesting, well worth reading in its entirety. As is Crow Mellow. I’m just sorry I’m not clever enough to be able to scan a double page of the story, plus illustrations, for this post.

  • What an interesting book, and how great that there’s a press out there wiling to invest in it. He’s probably right about literary people being not very visual. I’ve struggled with some of the graphic novels that are starting to be taken very seriously because I realise I haven’t learned how to read them as I have more conventional stuff. But the graphic novel is driven by the illustrations. This one sounds different and you’ve got me really intrigued.

    January 11, 2015 — 1:03
  • Haha Dorothy I just finished this book on the weekend, and have posted my review. I enjoyed the book. The plot is basic but the commentary on modern life, and on the meaning and practice of art in our era, makes it an enjoyable read. How anxious we all are about it … Though I suppose in that we are not necessarily much different from the past?

    January 11, 2015 — 20:56
  • Thanks for your comment, Joan. I have never been a fan of graphic novels, and I think ‘Crow Mellow’ is a different beast, There is a subtle balance between words and images, and you really need to see them together to understand how this works. Apologies again for not being able to reproduce a couple of pages for my blog. My sense is that the text without the drawings would be a lot softer, the satire more diffuse.

    January 12, 2015 — 2:45
  • A nice bit of serendipity WG! I enjoyed your review of ‘Crow Mellow’.
    I generally try and post some additional comments about reviews I write for the Fairfax newspapers, because those are usually limited to 600 words. In this post, I’ve focussed on the relationship between the words and images, because that is what’s stayed with me in regard to this particular book. I agree with you about anxieties relating to the meaning and practice of art. While writing the review, I went back and read Huxley’s ‘Crome Yellow’ which struck me as very assured for a debut work, (hardly surprising), but also claustrophobic.

    January 12, 2015 — 2:53
  • Was interested to read your review and to hear about Finlay Press. I was not aware we had a press
    publishing shorter works and will certainly follow them up.
    We have read some excellent writers coming from New Vessel Press and Peirene Press, both publishing works translated to English from a number of languages. Readux Press publishes little books around 20 pages long translated from German to English. Have tried three or four of these but a bit tricksy for my taste.
    The mingling of illustration and story is quite different though.

    January 14, 2015 — 2:52
  • Thanks for your comment, Gabrielle. I’m always glad to hear of small presses trying something different, and from what I know of them Finlay Lloyd publishes high quality material. I don’t know if they have any plans for more illustrated novels. It will be interesting to see. I hadn’t heard of the presses you mention, so thanks for sharing that.

    January 14, 2015 — 3:30
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