11 September 2007

Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

Ella Minnow Pea Off the coast of South Carolina is the island nation of Nollop, named in honour of Nevin Nollop, author of the sentence the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog. The inhabitants of the island use technology as little as possible and have elevated the English language to an art form. Communication is done by letter and Nollop is admired to the point of worship. So much so, that when the tile bearing the letter z falls from the monument to Nollop in the town square, the island council interprets it as a sign that Nollop’s ghost wishes them all to expunge z from the language. No-one over the age of seven may use it in speech or writing unless willing to face a punishment that could be as severe as banishment - or worse. Young laundress Ella Minnow Pea initially accepts the challenge of the new era, but her cousin Tassie is less sanguine. As more letters are banned and more people leave, Ella too begins to have her doubts. Their only hope for the survival of language on Nollop comes from Nate Warren, a mainland historian of all things Nollop, who suggests coming up with another sentence using all 26 letters - one shorter than the original. For if a mere mortal can do what Nollop did, and do it better, it will prove that he is not a god, and that the tiles fell simply because of the effect of gravity vs. old glue. An underground resistance movement springs up to attempt just that, but can they succeed before the deadline imposed by the council?

I’ve wanted to read this book ever since first hearing about it. I know there’s a novel that was written entirely without the use of the letter e, but one that keeps losing letters progressively? That must be quite an achievement - and it is. It helps that the first few letters to go are relatively uncommon ones, and that the Nollopians are prone to creating words at will (like humongolacity or vocabularian) and use a style that allows for creative constructions. Even after the loss of d it’s surprising how readable the book remains, and just how many letters can be lost before things get really unusual. But eventually - once the remaining islanders are obliged to resort to phonetic spelling - it becomes very difficult to read.

Using an epistolary form - with a few council proclamations thrown in - is really effective in showing how the reductions in the alphabet constrain the islanders. But between the verbose, formal style of the letters and their progressively shorter length, the characters writing them felt a little flat. I liked them well enough, but didn’t connect with any of them. Nevertheless it was a good and wonderfully imaginative depiction of what can happen to a society when the few decide to exert stringent control over the many. Nollop transforms from an idyllic island to a country of spies and suspicion, and if its freedoms can’t be restored it faces a short life expectancy. And if you don’t run out of time like I did, there’s the added fun of trying to come up with your own pangram (i.e. sentence containing all 26 letters) that shorter than Nollop’s original.

Rating: B


Heather said...

Really neat idea for a book!

Bookfool said...

I really enjoyed this book, but I was surprised by how bad things became on the island, toward the end. Still, it was fascinating and made me laguh a lot.

Bookfool said...

That would be "laugh".

Anonymous said...

What a fascinating concept! There are some truly unusual books out there. *grin*

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776