THE A-Z OF YOU AND ME BY JAMES HANNAH
Although the thirst for crime and murder remains undiminished, we’re not very good at talking about the inevitable: death. Perhaps our obsession with ‘yoof’ culture, coupled with the almost religious fervour we apply to beating the ageing process, makes us resistant. These are a couple of reasons why I tuned into the Reith lectures this year. In it, the wonderfully compassionate Dr Atul Gawande explored the whole notion of dying a ‘good death’. Little did I appreciate that it would stand me in good stead for reading James Hannah’s breathtakingly beautiful debut novel.
Ivo is forty years of age and dying of kidney failure. His nurse, Sheila, suggests that he keeps his overactive mind absorbed by playing the A-Z game. Ivo must think of a part of the body for each letter of the alphabet and craft a little story to illustrate it. Through this, we learn of Ivo’s troubled life.
Superficially, a hospice has to rate as one of the most unlikely settings for a story and yet it feels absolutely the right place for it’s only in our final hours that we understand that wealth and ‘things’, even achievements and experiences, matter less than the people we love. Sadly, we also realise regrets and the things we didn’t do and wished we had.
In less skilled hands – and I had to pinch myself to remind me that this is a debut – the novel could have been a self-indulgent misery memoir. But A-Z is nothing of the sort. Intimate, intense, compellingly honest, and at times, funny, Ivo’s story could belong to any one of us. It’s a rare person who can look back on a life in which the right path was always taken.
Through Hannah’s lyrical, sensitive and poetic prose, he reduces Ivo’s world to the bare essentials of existence. Everything is more simple and vivid, whether it’s the birds playing in the trees, or the sound of a door clicking shut. Ivo is sometimes fearful, but it’s not the all-enveloping terror that one might imagine in his situation. Without being in the least religious, there is a genuine sense of spirit and mind triumphing over body. And, yes, forgiveness and absolution lie at the heart of the story.
I can weep buckets watching a film. I can number the times I’ve cried reading a book on one hand, but my goodness, this had me reaching for the Kleenex. Honestly, read it. Rarely will a novel change your life. This one just might.