Why I am glad I read the book I didn’t want to read: Review of The A-Z of You & Me

I really, really didn’t want to read this book. In fact, having lost my mum just over a year ago, I was actively trying to avoid books about death and dying, and I couldn’t bear to think about, never mind read about Hospices. But at Christmas, someone bought me a copy of the Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, and I took it to the hairdressers without realising what it was about. Trapped in tin foil, I was stuck with this book, and then I was hooked on the hilarity as well as the grief of the bonkers and beautiful Hayes family. Then, feeling brave, I read The Dead Wife’s Handbook, fascinated by the author’s skill in writing about a protagonist who was essentially dead. I wrote two book reviews, and patted myself on the back: I’d done my time with the dead and dying, and looked forward to reading a thriller or YA romance.
But I’d forgotten about the CB Book Club. As a recent member, I’d committed to reading whatever was next on their list. Half the club would be allocated The Insect Farm, the other half were to read The A–Z of You and Me by James Hannah. Now I am not a big fan of insects either, but I crossed my fingers and decided spiders were marginally preferable to death. But clearly, someone upstairs was having a laugh: the post arrived. Apparently I was going to have to read a third book in as many weeks about death and dying.
Casting disgruntled looks at my TBR pile, I decided to speed-read it: to get in and out as fast as I could, dash off a review and get on with my life. So on Thursday night I opened up the book.
And then.
And then I began to read the words written by James Hannah. I think I might have said ‘Oh,’ but I remember physically settling back on to my pillow, slowing down, and forgetting everything else but this beautiful book. You don’t need me to tell you what it is about: you will have heard by now that it is about a man called Ivo, who spends the last days of his life in a hospice, working his way through the alphabet, thinking of a body part for each letter. This provides the trunck or main structure of the book, allowing for branches of memory to spring off in different directions, so we see Ivo as a child, a youth and a man, meeting his friends and family along the way.
It’s a clever concept – everyone agrees – but more than this, the writing is masterful. Subtle, delicate phrases that out of context hold little power, but together build up a story that is almost unbearably moving and at times laugh-out-loud funny. Apart from the writing (and oh, the writing), what I love most about this book is its authenticity. Ivo is not a hero. He has few if any admirable traits. Most of his memories are of him and his friends getting wasted on alcohol and drugs, swearing and laughing as they stagger through the clubs and pubs in an illusion of immortality, even as Ivo’s own body is beginning to fail him. A lesser writer would have invented some deep-seated psychological reasons for why Ivo does what he does. But Hannah reminds us that sometimes people make stupid choices; sometimes, people are just arses.
As Ivo himself observes, the only way out of a Hospice is in a box. He, like the reader, knows how this story ends. But Hannah uses his skill as a writer to play with the reader, and we turn the pages, desperate to know why no one visits him. Where is Mia, the love of his life, and why does he cling so very tight to the crocheted blanket she made for him? His delicate descriptions of what it must feel like to die; the slow and irrevocable loss of each bodily function are skilfully done, but amidst all the sorrow, he also captures the glorious, soaring feeling of being loved and in love. I will resist quoting huge sections of the book to you, in an attempt to demonstrate just what a masterful writer Hannah is. Instead, next time you are in a bookshop, seek out this book, read the first chapter, and then, my friend, you will be taking it to the till.
It is normal practice to conclude a review of a debut novelist with something like ‘I can’t wait for his next one’. But having read a few interviews with James Hannah, it makes sense to discover that he is a musician, and that he took six years to write this novel. The story has been marinating in his mind, and each carefully chosen word, each apparently random scene, reflects the time and thought he has taken.
So instead, I want to urge James Hannah to take his time writing the next one. I can and will wait – if it is as anywhere near as good as this. Thank you, CB Book Club, for making me read this masterful writer (I know, I said that already, but he is). But if it you don’t mind, I will be reading a romance novel next.


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