Pages: 203 (Paperback)
As Ella Minnow Pea writes to her cousin with the latest news on the small, quiet island of Nollop, little does she imagine the crisis ahead. The letter z has fallen from the statue of Nevin Nollop, revered author of the sentence ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ – and the island’s rulers interpret this as a sign of divine displeasure and ban its use in any form. In a novel composed of correspondence, the loss of z is inconvenient; but far worse is to come as more letters fall and more are banned until only l, m, n, o, p remain…
The story of a battle against tyranny, this extraordinary novel, written with an ever-shrinking alphabet, is at once a moving love story, a brilliant political allegory and an unforgettable celebration of language.
Another one of my impulse buys, I picked this up based on nothing but the cover and blurb – expecting a fun and slightly quirky little story. What I got was…well a funny and slightly quirky little story, but I had to slog through a first half that was trying to be a bit too clever for its own good before I got there.
The Nollopians, we are told, have a devotion to language so strong that it is now almost a national art form. What this seems to mean is that private letters between individuals who know each other very well come off as either unsettlingly formal, or read like internet posts from that arsehole everyone has encountered at least once, who uses as many long words as he can to try to sound superior. Its acknowledged in text to be a peculiarity of Nollopians that means they fail to fit in abroad but…well people who labour language a bit too much and use several dozen long words when they could convey the same meaning better by two short ones are a pet peeve of mine. Nothing against long words in general but they are not automatically superior to short ones, and vice versa. I have to say it wasn’t very long before I was hoping the letters would start to drop from the statue a bit faster just to shut the characters up. It would have been a lot easier to appreciate the story if the characters had written in a more relatable way from the start.
It’s not helped by the fact that it’s very difficult to smoothly convey certain types of information in an epistolary novel – the information the reader needs to know is often different from the information the character would naturally be writing down. As a result there are several paragraphs of shoehorned information that amount to a slightly wordier version of ‘as you already know, we both live on an island where language is worshipped alongside Nollop, who was the inventor of ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’, which is a pangram – a sentence that includes every letter of the alphabet’ or ‘my mother – your aunt and your mother’s sister – is a primary school teacher’. Later on in the story two relatively important new characters are introduced in a letter to a friend that basically says ‘I went over to your house yesterday and met the new characters who were also at your house’. I realise that this is important information to get across and the nature of the format and lack of third person narrator means there’s no other way to do it, but that didn’t stop me from rolling my eyes and muttering ‘really? You’d really say that?’ whenever a particularly obvious example cropped up. I also found it remarkable how these people would vigorously censor their correspondence of all words containing ‘forbidden letters’ but were happy to openly discuss their other illegal activities and acts of rebellion – even after it became known the post was being intercepted and checked.
For me, though, it got a lot better once enough of the letters had dropped that the few people remaining on the island were forced to use bizarre phonetic spellings (Tetermination to ent tee tast I startet = determination to end the task I started) and keep their writing relatively short. At that point the story seemed to finally embrace the silliness of the premise, not just with the spellings but the actual action of the story as well. It became much more funny and a lot closer to what I had expected from the blurb than the very very earnest middle-class angsting of the earlier sections. It was these last few chapters that really redeemed the book in my eyes and lifted it from ‘two star’ territory into something I actually quite enjoyed. That and the originality of the idea.
Now it’s odd for me to finish a review without talking about the characters. I’m very much a character person. But here the characters are really playing second fiddle to the plot. Even though everything is told through the eyes and words of the characters I never really got a feel for any of them except Georgeanne Towgate and ‘Anonymess’ neighbour, both of whom were very minor characters. Anonymess’ single line of scribbled note telling the main character where to stick it actually told me a lot more than the pages and pages of Ella’s early and very verbose letters to her cousin. Cousin Tassie and Ella might as well be the same person in terms of writing style and personality, though they do play slightly different roles in the story and the same can be said for their mothers – all the good characters were just kind of samey-samey, wishy-washy. Ella’s dad seemed to have a bit more personality going for him but, not being a big writer, I didn’t see as much of him as I would have liked.Tassie’s boyfriend also got to write one heartfelt love letter, but given the short amount of time they had known each other at this point and the fact that I’m not romantic, I simply found it so cringe worthy I thought he should be dumped immediately. It also ruined my own image of most of the major characters being mixed race by giving one of the very few physical descriptions in the book.
Most of the letter writing came across as functional rather than particularly personal, resulting in none of the characters really feeling all that fleshed out. But given that the focus was clearly on the mad premise and not character development I can forgive it that. What brought it down from a four star read or higher wasn’t poor characterisation, but that the first half tried to portray the premise far too seriously. Up until the book finally decided to run with the silliness it all just came off as trying way too hard to be clever.
A very clever idea, not so cleverly executed.