Toronto Book Awards – Reviewing Étienne’s Alphabet

The 2011 Toronto Book Awards is being covered by our guest blogger Christine Sweeton. To read more about her, click here.


ALPHABET: In the English language, 26 characters. In Étienne’s Alphabet, the novel by James King, it is the key structuring feature. I had assumed that a story based around the structure of a dictionary would be annoying and feel contrived. Only a few sentences into the book, all of my assumptions were proven false when I found myself captivated by King’s description of the letter A. All of the 26 sections of the novel, which is divided like a dictionary, starts with a brief and interesting discussion of each letter; the letters are often personified in the most amusing way.

EXAMPLE: One that is representative of a group. There are so many examples of King’s amusing letter descriptions. I found myself agreeing with each unique description, often laughing out loud at the comparisons. However, this one is a little depressing as it details both C and S negatively. My name is Christine Sweeton, so these are obviously among my favourite letters. Mind you, King is not wrong with his observations:

“C – together to S – is a difficult letter to love. Both of them are arrogant. The C has a simple curve by which it announces its place whereas the sinuosity of the S is like that of the serpent that tempted Eve in Eden. In addition, C seems deliberate in its studied nonchalance. To my eyes, it has a brutal edge, as when it is written as a slash to indicate a mediocre mark on an academic assignment. Like most human beings I have my measure of pride but I despise exhibitionists and, in the final analysis, C luxuriates in displaying its vainglory.

The powers of C have been brilliantly exploited Coca-Cola. The two Cs in an elegant signature style seem to open their arms in a warm embrace and even a smile. Seldom has seduction been so perfectly enacted by the letters of the alphabet.”

FRANCOPHONE: One who speaks French. An major theme is Étienne’s Alphabet is the overwhelming prejudice experienced by French-Canadians. Even though the novel is set in the mid-twentieth century I was alarmed at how many of the statements remain true today. This is an excellent read to help better understand French-English relations and to reflect on what are unacceptable and outdated attitudes of a divided nation.

KING, JAMES: An obviously talented Canadian writer. King’s writing style is inviting, drawing even the most reluctant reader in. Despite the obviously disjointed format of a dictionary, King avoids this pitfall with a story that flows with ease; the novel is very readable.

ROOMATE: A unrelated person you live with. Normally I am a faster reader than my roommate. However, she got to Étienne’s Alphabet first and read it in an hour. Because I read it as my “commuting book”, It took me longer. I would suggest planning to read the book as my roomate did: you will have a hard time putting down this captivating novel, the story is more conducive to a longer reading than picking it up for short sessions, and that will give you time to read the other Toronto Book Awards contenders.

TORONTO: The capital of Ontario and the largest city in Canada. In the book, Étienne says, “Although I have retained a guarded view of Toronto. For me, it remains a place of possibilities.” The novel itself presents a similarly balanced viewpoint of the city. Toronto is not paradise but also not undesirable. The descriptions feel real and comforting.

WONDERFUL: Something capable of eliciting wonder. Étienne’s Alphabet is an excellent novel and a wonderful read. I would definitely suggest this great book!


All of the shortlisted novels will be featured in the Toronto Book Awards Tent at The Word On The Street! Étienne’s Alphabet by James King will be presented by at both 12:00pm and 3:30pm.


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