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Book review: The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Today is the publication day for the second Curtis Brown book group choice, James Hannah’s debut novel, The A-Z of You and Me.

Ivo fell for her.
He fell for a girl he can’t get back.
Now he’s hoping for something.
While he waits he plays a game:
He chooses a body part and tells us its link to the past he threw away.
He tells us the story of how she found him, and how he lost her.
But he doesn’t have long.
And he still has one thing left to do …

I think we’ve all played the A-Z game at one time or other, perhaps not with body parts, but something else: places, foods, people’s names, pop songs. But our games were probably played on holiday, either in the car to and from our destination or on a rainy day in the caravan to kill time.

In The A-Z of You and Me, it’s not time but the game player himself, Ivo, who’s dying and he plays the game while lying in his hospice bed. It’s something he does grudgingly and only at the suggestion of one of his carers, Sheila. She believes it will help him focus on something other than his terminal illness, and keep him alert and occupied. But all Ivo initially wants to do is to deaden himself to any sensation or feeling and shut himself off from everyone he’s ever known.

You might not think this the most promising of premises but I can promise you that The A-Z of You and Me is nowhere near as grim and bleak as it may at first sound. Yes, it’s heartbreaking at times but you’ll also find yourself laughing out loud in places, and chuckling at others. I really enjoyed reading James Hannah’s debut and thought it a beautifully-written book. I had to keep stopping to re-read certain sentences, which felt as if they captured a truth about what it is to be human or said something life-affirming. And, ultimately, it’s a moving and uplifting read. It makes you think not only about Ivo’s life choices but also about your own.

I liked the choices that James Hannah made for this novel. He chose a protagonist who’s not heroic but someone who felt much more everyday: he’s still someone who has people or something to lose by dying so young (even if he doesn’t realise this until very late on) but I think he was more relatable for being someone who was drifting through life, not taking care of himself, and not appreciating or nurturing the relationships he has with other people. I think most of us think of ourselves as invincible at one age or another, or simply that it – whatever ‘it’ is – won’t ever happen to us. That we’ll get away with it.

Hannah also chooses an illness that is a result of something Ivo could have lived with and had under control but which, through his bad choices and the encouragement of the friends he hangs around with, turns into a worst case scenario for Ivo. Ivo may be playing the A-Z game now but he played a much more dangerous one to end up where he has. It’s too easy to say that he brought it on himself because most of us know that it’s easier to tell a friend to get out of a toxic situation than it often is to do so yourself. Besides, it’s not as if all Ivo’s friends have escaped unscathed from the situation.

One of the reasons The A-Z of You and Me is such a beautifully-written novel is because it’s beautifully-balanced. We switch between the flashbacks of Ivo’s life created while he works through his A-Z, and his present-day stay in the hospice. That, together with his upbeat carer, Sheila, who spends a lot of time coaxing him out of himself and forcing him not to give up on himself or the few friends and family he has left, keeps the story moving. The A-Z framework could have been restricting but it’s what gives the novel its movement and freedom. Given Ivo is in a bed for the vast majority of the story, it could have felt static, yet just as Sheila and his other visitors flow around Ivo, the story flows around the alphabet game. It’s a delicate balance to achieve but Hannah manages it incredibly well and ensures our interest stays with Ivo’s story to the end. Which is why I have no hesitation in recommending it to you.

James Hannah is an Amazon Rising Star 2015 and an Observer ‘New Face of Fiction’ 2015 author and The A-Z of You and Me is his debut novel. It is published by Transworld Books and is out today in hardback and as an ebook. You can buy the book from all good bookshops and online from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository, Hive, Foyles and Waterstones. You can find out more about James by visiting his Author Website or you can Follow James on Twitter

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