A-Zby James Hannah

4 stars

It’s so easy to blame others for all that’s gone wrong in a life, especially a life that has become a litany of grief and regret.
Ivo lies in a hospice bed; he is forty years old and he’s waiting for death. His nurse, the kind and caring, funny Sheila – were you waiting out in the corridor? You came straight in. Oh yeah, keeping vigil outside your room every minute of the day, sweetheart. And it’s only a coincidence that’s where we keep the biscuits – suggests a game to stop him going bananas: to think up an alphabet of body-parts, and each one holds a memory, a story. Some of them are sad (Feet: ‘Mum rubs my feet. I can see she’s found my card. Happy Father’s Day. Mum must have dug it out of the bin); some are funny (chesticles: tiny breasts like wasp stings); some angry (Jugular: There’s definitely a way you can kill someone if you know the right pressure points); or uplifting (Wings: A bird. A fluttering bird. Hold our hands against the sky. Two songbirds, fluttering on the eddies. That’s when we’ll be together, mingling in the wind); but most, by far, are sad (Kidneys: I’ve put off making this call for as long as I can. There has always been that finest thread of hope. The tiniest thread that I’m about to snap forever). The game is not the happy experience Sheila intended. For Ivo, it becomes a soul-wrenching journey through a sad and wasted life; a search for redemption; a hunt for the cause of all his wrong-turns, and wherever he looks, he finds, at the eye of every storm, one constant, his selfish, boorish, ego-centric ‘friend’ Mal. But is that true? There’s plenty I could say about the very end of this very good book, but I risk spoiling it utterly.
Sheila’s game of the bits of the body is a clever device for telling Ivo’s story and The A – Z of You and Me is such a well-crafted work: the plotting and the pacing are as practically perfect as in any novel I’ve ever read. The writing is quietly emotional; affecting, but never mawkish or saccharine – And now I’m aware that I keep saying how miserable Ivo’s life has been, and the sadness is there, it pervades the narrative like the smell of vetivert, but the misery lies in Ivo’s perception more than his reality. It is only at the end of his life that he can see the whole picture; all the joy and many delights his life has held, and all embodied by a scented woollen blanket filled with memories.
This is a wonderful book. Though the tale itself is not particularly fresh or original (how many novels are?), the execution is, and the ending is faultless, and absolute perfection.