Alphabetical-Africa-002“Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva, allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement…”

Last year I read the interestingly constructed A Void, a novel that doesn’t contain a single letter ‘e’. Despite occasionally wondering why anyone would bother trying, but being grateful that they did, I became curious about other novels with a limitation. Alphabetical Africa kept cropping up again and again, so here it is.

In this novel, as you can probably tell from the first line quoted above, there is a limitation on the letter words start with. In the first chapter, every word begins with A. In the second, they start with A or B. In the third … well, you get the idea. This continues for twenty-six chapters, naturally, at which point we get two that have no limitations and then the process happens again in reverse, first losing Z, then Y, etc.

There is a story in here too, or rather several that get picked up and dropped as the lettering allows. The author is on the hunt of Alva, a woman who seems to attract everyone she meets and is also being hunted down by two jewel thieves. In Tanzania, transvestite Queen Quat is painting her country orange and declaring war on Zanzibar. And there’s an army of ants trying to take over the gradually shrinking continent.

OK, so I know that doesn’t make much sense but, frankly, with a conceit like this what were you expecting? While there’s a story there, it gets a little lost as it is pretty hard to read this at any speed, especially with the chapters at the extreme ends of the novel. By the time you get up to M or N, it’s fairly easy to read and could just about pass as a normal novel, but something still seems off, and again it becomes harder as the letters vanish. You don’t really think about which words of any importance could be missing, but then you consider that “the” doesn’t show up until chapter twenty, and “you”, “what”, “we” and “Zanzibar”, one of the principal locations, don’t appear until even later.

I noted just one mistake – an appearance of an O-word in the chapter where we’ve only just got H – but apart from that the thing seems expertly done. I did search online afterwards for mentions of any other mistakes and apparently while I said there’s one, most people say there are between four and six, and some very sharp-eyed readers have found forty-three. I don’t know where they are and I don’t much care, the thing is done well.

It’s only 152 pages, but it’s not the quickest of reads simply because sounds begin to jumble in your head as the same sounds trip over one another. All in all, it’s really more a case of style than substance, but it’s still definitely worth a read because it’s so smart. All applaud Abish, an amazing adventure across Africa.

Slightly closer to home than Africa for me is London, and I’ve started a new blog called Love Letters To London in which, every week, I talk about some aspect of the city. Pop along there if you want to know more about London’s history, culture, landmarks and people.