The A–Z of You and Me
by James Hannah
From the marketing campaign around this debut novel – and the strapline on the cover (“A comedy of errors, a tragedy of small mistakes”) – I was expecting quite a light read, even though the premise should have prepared me for something a bit darker. It’s certainly an easy, often sweet read, but its subject matter is pretty dark. It’s an odd juxtaposition.
Ivo is lying in a hospice, trying his best not to dwell on the past, but he’s so young to be dying, still in the middle of all the drama that is life. To distract him from the pain, his nurse gets him to play a game of naming a body part for each letter of the alphabet and coming up with an anecdote for each body part. And so he plays the game, telling the story of his life out of order and one body part at a time.
But who is he telling his story to? This book is written in the second person, addressed to someone special in Ivo’s past, but he has a lot of pain, hurt and regret to work through before the story becomes clear. What starts out as a love story becomes something more complicated – a whole life.
“I don’t want her to see, I don’t want her to see, but she’s looking up at my face, and she can see now there’s something wrong. My throat’s so tight. Hot, tight, tight, dry. That’s what normally passes for crying with me. It’s a dry throat. It’s not being able to breathe.
But this time, for once, gratifying tears begin to prickle.
‘Oh, lovey,’ she says, quietly.
She doesn’t make a fuss. She must be used to unexplained fluids leaking from patients.
How weird, tears. I trickle water for you.”
Ivo is a frustrating central character. He hasn’t taken responsibility for his fate, despite having made many mistakes along the way, but that’s sort of the point. He needs to work through his story bit by bit until he sees his own responsibility, but it can be irritating watching and waiting. His story is compelling and not at all what I had expected. The method of telling it through body parts is very broken up, which I actually really liked. I’m not sure a straightforward timeline would have worked nearly as well.
There is dark humour in all this, which is part of what makes this an easier read than the subject matter would suggest. But it’s a very emotional read, occasionally veering into melodrama. Which is perhaps to be expected considering that its central character is dying.
“Me, my body; my body, me. I’m all the same, but not. I didn’t want it to happen like that. I am my mind. Not my body. But it was like my body wouldn’t let my mind get away with it.”
One of the recurring subjects of this book is a woollen blanket that someone in Ivo’s past made for him, and which he now takes comfort in. Part of the marketing campaign for this book was that bloggers were asked to knit a square each to be stitched together into a blanket. I haven’t seen the finished product but here is my square:
I definitely enjoyed this book. I liked how much of it was about the kind of ordinary life that I easily recognise (Ivo’s flashbacks, that is – I’m not familiar with hospices, thankfully, though for many people I’m sure they too are everyday). I didn’t love it and it didn’t make cry, but from the looks of Twitter it’s got tears out of many other readers.
Published 12 March 2015 by Doubleday.
Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.