Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the way novels are structured and if too rigid a structure can be detrimental to a reader’s experience. Sometimes when reading a novel once you see you’re being drawn along a particular path the author has created it can feel too heavy-handed or predictable. However, debut novel “The A to Z of You and Me” by James Hannah feels to me like an excellent case where the author’s clear structure fits perfectly with his subject and the trajectory of his story. Ivo is only forty years old, but he’s now living in a hospice due to complications of diabetes and kidney failure. He knows that he probably won’t recover. In order to help distract him from this fact and “keep the old brain cells ticking over”, a colourfully-spoken and encouraging nurse named Sheila gives him a game to play where he has to think of a part of the body for each letter of the alphabet. In the process of doing so, Ivo has memory associations with each part he names which encourages him to recall the past, deal with his guilt and mentally converse with his former girlfriend Mia. The result is a beautiful-composed representation of one man’s sadly-interrupted life conveyed through fragmented memories that are both highly comic and tragic.
Although the reader knows what letter will come next throughout the novel, some letters receive multiple words with short or extensive connections attached to them. Despite sometimes anticipating what body part he might name to go with certain letters, I was thoroughly immersed in Ivo’s story because of the surprising shifts between past and present. While Ivo struggles with the onset of debilitating symptoms associated with his illness as he’s confined in his hospice bed, he recalls aspects of his life ranging from very early childhood to his courtship with the woman he loves to his problems with substance abuse. In this critical point of his life he observes “There’s not many times when all things fall away and you start to see yourself for what you are, but that’s what I’m feeling now.” His condition gives tremendous focus to what’s important in life and sharpens his understanding of how he came to this point. The reader is cleverly led through several mysteries which are hinted at within the glimpses we’re given of his past; this creates suspense drawing you along and making this novel a compulsive, fast read.
I have to stress that although Ivo’s condition is tragic and the book explores many dark aspects of life, Hannah maintains a tremendous lightness of touch and gives brilliant humorous moments which lift this novel out of being a morose read. There are multiple funny descriptions of body parts and banter between the characters as well as more sophisticated amusing observations. For instance, when describing the awkward call and response of habitual declarations of love he writes: “I always feel a bit defeated when I have to follow up with ‘I love you too’. It’s like the sequel to a film: I Love You and I Love You Too.” Hannah also captures a sort of absurdity about the human condition reminiscent of Beckett plays. In particular, sequences in the hospice play out in a dramatic form where Ivo is in a state like Winnie from Happy Days as he is confined to his bed making him acutely aware of the circumscribed environment surrounding him. Irritating lights outside his window come on and off. There is a female patient next door who emits frequent groans. He feels “lost in a world of regular hums, distant beeping, the periodic reheating of the coffee machine in the corridor, and that steady kazoo.” The reader is frequently made aware of all that he senses around him while his memories swirl in a vortex within him. All the while he is attended by the perky, wise and spirited Nurse Sheila who is warmly optimistic and tremendously caring. It elevates his game of naming body parts to a form of elegy which memorializes his experiences and the great love of his life.
This novel is also a tragic romance. Although we’re made aware early on that Ivo is no longer with Mia we don’t know why until near the end of the book. The story of their courtship is depicted in refreshingly realistic detail which adeptly avoids ever becoming soppy. The connection between them happens quite quickly, but Ivo knows there is something special and real about their relationship when he doesn’t fall back upon old ways of describing his past and identity. He tells Mia about his father in a way he hasn’t a thousand times before so “It felt for the first time like I was telling it in a way that I wanted to tell it.” Serious trust and caring for someone inspires us to speak from the heart rather than falling back on rote descriptions of our lives. This sort of connection made me feel emotionally invested in it and tense to find out how their relationship played out. The way Ivo speaks directly to her in the narrative and the manner in which this lost love is conveyed in pithy short declarations such as “You’re everywhere. The memories of you, the shape of you” affectingly brings this romance to life. Other relationships within the novel are depicted with equal care – particularly Ivo’s antagonistic exchanges with his older sister Laura and how their connection changes due to traumatic experiences.
James Hannah has really written an impressive debut. It’s particularly admirable the way this novel powerfully captures the visceral pain and fear of being in a hospice while being beset by severely debilitating ailments. I felt drawn into and affected by Ivo’s experiences in a way similar to how I felt reading Rachel Joyce’s “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy”. There’s wisdom in Hannah’s depiction of the way we’re drawn at times towards self destruction and what’s bad for us (even when we know better). He writes: “Sometimes, you know, when you see the worst of everything lined up before you, you’ve just got to go for it. See how badly you can crash it.” By taking responsibility for his actions, Ivo is able to touchingly honour the love he shared with Mia. “The A to Z of You and Me” is a deeply moving story that skilfully depicts a complex spectrum of human emotion.