James Hannah’s debut novel, The A to Z of You and Me, gets evaluated by our bespectacled resident reviewist, Phillip Clement.

A to Z of you and meJames Hannah, a graduate of Curtis Brown’s Creative Writing course and one of The Observer’s ‘New Faces of Fiction’ for 2015, has got it all going for him, and his debut novel, The A to Z of You and Me, is a recipe for teary-eyed success in the vein of Rachel Joyce and Jonas Jonasson.

I know exactly what you’d be saying to me now.
You’d be telling me that I have to try.
To try to try.
But I want to give up. I just want to lie here, in this bed, in this room, with nothing to look at but the wall and the window, the magnolia tree beyond…Maybe the older patients are content to keep themselves occupied with parlour games. But I don’t want any of it. I’m forty. My mind’s too active. I need it deadening.

Though, that’s not to sell it short. Mainstream it may be, but simple it ain’t. The A to Z tells the story of a young (though nevertheless dying) man, Ivo, as he looks back over his misspent youth from his bed in a hospice. Lamenting the friendships made and broken and his love for the girl that that he’ll never get back. At the suggestion of his nurse, he begins to take his mind off his anxieties and being bedbound, by playing an A-Z game, listing the parts of his body and telling a little tale or memory about each.

‘Chesticles?’ You say.
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Becca used to say it.’
It’s the joy in your face that takes me by surprise, and then your infectious and unfettered laugh.
‘Oh, that’s lovely!’ you say. ‘And I suppose Becca ought to know. You wait, I’m going to use that all the time.’

I found this to be a poignant tale of a life wasted through passivity. Hannah’s characters (Ivo’s friends) represent your mother’s nightmare; they are selfish, drug-addled and inconsistent. A herd of underachievers content to drift blithely through life, making their decisions on behalf of the herd as opposed to the individual. Little realising the impact that the (seemingly) insignificant decisions, like a drink here, a joint there or a drive home after might have on their lives.

James Hannah (c) Claire Cousin 2Hannah navigates this well, for the most part keeping mawkish kitsch and schmaltz at arms-length. Rather than overtly playing on this glib sentimentality, he opts instead to focus on capturing the minutia within the big picture, capturing beautifully those racy twilight-thoughts in which our hind-mind reminds us of our impermanence.

As I lie here now, going over that scene after all these years, the danger I think of is his clear eyes and honest intonation, and I think, maybe I had more of an effect than I thought by simply not being around. Maybe you can’t just switch yourself off from people’s lives. Maybe I could be persuaded that he was being reasonable.
But no. No way.

It’s worth mentioning that owing to the relatively small cast and the first person narrative, The A to Z can feel a little empty at times. While I’m not saying that I longed for Hannah to emulate a great Russian novel, I might have preferred more character interaction. Long sections of the book are taken over by Ivo’s ruminating on whether or not he should accept death-bed guests and at times I found myself wishing that he would, if only to inject a little more action into the narrative.

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The A to Z of You and Me (Doubleday) is available in hardback and e-book from March 12th. You can find out more about James Hannah by visiting his website.

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