The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah: A lexicon of love

The A - Z of You and MeI 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.

12 thoughts on “The A-Z of You and Me by James Hannah: A lexicon of love”

  1. Interesting how some of those well-meaning publishers’ comparisons actually make us more sceptical about a book. Like the Gone Girl comparison (I enjoyed the original but I only want one of it in my life). But then you discovered there was some truth to it, it wasn’t just a marketing ploy. It does sound intriguing, thank you for a fine review.

    1. Susan Osborne

      And thank you for such kind words. Years in the trade have made me cynical but this one proves that it’s always worth trying the first few pages and seeing how you get on. You’re quite right, though, endless repetition of a good idea simply ruins it.

    1. Susan Osborne

      That’s a treat-in-waiting for me, Helen. I’m always deeply sceptical about those comparisons but in this case I think it’s accurate.

  2. It sounds an intriguing novel but a painful one – thank goodness for the humour! I like books that use structural devices without allowing them to make the narrative feel contrived. There’s a fine skill in that. I have to confess I still haven’t read David Nicholl’s One Day – I really should!

    1. Susan Osborne

      I think you’d like One Day, Victoria. An excellent novel ruined in the sentimental Hollywood adaptation, sadly. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to this one.

  3. You know what I said about comparisons on your Hausfrau review? I hated One Day with a passion – I have another book in my review pile that’s been compared to it and I keep eyeing it warily. Having said that, the title of this book put me off initially but having read quite a few reviews of it now by people I trust, I should have paid more attention to the colour of the jacket as a clue to what it’s about. It certainly sounds more complex than my prejudices had me believe and I just might read it when it’s out in paperback.

    1. Susan Osborne

      Ha! I thought One Day was a cleverly executed piece of commercial fiction unafraid to have an unhappy ending so, clearly, we’ll have to agree to differ on that one. I thought Hannah might have been too clever for his own good with this structure but he has a light touch with it.

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