I wasn’t at all sure about James Hannah’s debut when it arrived. The press release claimed it was for David Nicholls fans of which I have been one since the immensely enjoyable One Day but I’ve been suckered by that kind of comparison before. Having decided to give it a try, I was distracted by another arrival then picked it up again a week or so later. Half-way through, having completely forgotten the press release, I made a note ‘David Nicholls school of commercial fiction’. So there you are – that’ll teach me to be so cynical, although I doubt that will last.
Forty-year-old Ivo lies in his hospice bed. To help him combat his distress and occasional panic, his nurse has suggested he names parts of his body starting with A, working through the alphabet telling himself stories about each bit. He must use respectable anatomical terms, though, no vulgarity allowed. Despite his scepticism, Ivo decides to take her advice and begins with Adam’s apple and a funny little anecdote from his childhood. He decides to tell his stories to his still-beloved ex-girlfriend, unfolding his life to us as he recounts them to her: the loss of his father when he was six; his friendship with Mal, rebellious and smart; his diagnosis with diabetes and the times he and Mia shared, good and bad. As each letter is dispatched it becomes clear that there is a good deal of unfinished business in Ivo’s life with little time left to finish it.
Adopting an alphabetical structure could have easily backfired if stuck to rigidly but Hannah knows when to use it and when to let the narrative flow. Each story reveals telling details about his life – sometimes small, occasionally delivering shocks with a punch which comes out of the blue. Hannah has a sharp ear for dialogue, using it to bring his characters to life as Ivo remembers scenes with those who have meant most to him, for good or ill. You need a strong vein of humour to balance the melancholy in a book like this and Hannah delivers it beautifully: ‘how many die of politeness’ unable to decide if they’re ill enough to bother the nurse nicely sums up the not wanting to make a fuss attitude, typical of the British. There’s a sense of life carrying on in plain sight as Ivo gradually recedes from it but an urgency about what he needs to do. Altogether an accomplished piece of fiction, both entertaining and thought-provoking. I won’t be so sceptical about Hannah’s next novel.