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is an excellent read to help better understand French-English relations and to reflect on what are unacceptable and outdated attitudes of a divided nation.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!