Book review – Any fool can be unhappy? The heartbreaking yet witty world of James Hannah’s Ivo 

The A – Z of You and Me by James Hannah, Transworld Publishers

It would be disservice to the author to describe how The A – Z of You and Me initially unfolds by merely saying that the opening pages take us to a patient’s hospice room.

What is more important to underline is the speed with which the sights and sounds – the very world inhabited by ‘Ivo’ – become the reader’s world, and all delivered with a striking and skilful economy of writing as Ivo unwraps and wrangles with his past.

Similarly, an image of the important characters, such as his magnificently talented and loving nurse Shiela, forms very quickly and even becomes familiar and sensory with startling speed.

This occurs through a writing style with maintains a snapping, sharp tone yet says so much in very few words. It does so with flickering observations about the slight actions of those in the world we have entered.

At times I even found myself skipping back a few paragraphs to marvel at how so much could be said in such a way and yet the story can still slice its way from dialogue to dialogue with such clarity and in such an illuminating and involving way. 

In an interview I had read with the author before buying the book, James Hannah noted that something supernatural occurs where really great writing is found, a point I’d very recently made online.

I suspected before the book was opened that we would get along well and it is certainly the case that the magic of author’s craft is at work.

We find ourselves almost living through the thoughts and actions of Ivo as he carries out an A to Z of his body parts and associated memories, tackled as a thought exercise suggested by Shiela. The task, however, dredges up difficult memories and difficult relationships along the way.

Structurally The A – Z of You and Me reminds me a little of Irvine Welsh’s darker and more free-wheeling Marabou Stork Nightmares, and thankfully the leaps from past to present are at no point anything less than completely clear and engaging.

However, it is some wonderful turns of phrase that really stand out and move the story along beautifully, raising quite a few smiles and even laughs as Ivo’s struggle with the past unfolds.
Some youthful wisdom and dry observations (“two’s company, three’s a political situation”) early in the book are especially enjoyable. And you’ll also get to discover the glorious word “doot!”. Thank you James.

The interactions between the characters are wonderfully lively and rich with real depth brought to every interaction.

In particular, the relationships between Ivo and Sheila – who dispenses such wisdom “any fool can be unhappy” – and ex-girlfriend Mia are fascinating: they are the two people who seem to seem to bring to him the greatest love and have the greatest effect on his morose nature. “It’s nice when people presume I’m nice, it makes me nice”, he observes in response to kindness from Sheila yet recalls when his “mind searches for emotional response, comes back blank” at one point in his life prior to becoming a hospice patient.

One relationship does seem to help Ivo’s levels of empathy and emotion find a way the surface early in the book when he talks with a patient’s daughter aged in her late teens. We see a new side of him; a glimpse of new potential for himself and for others as well a capability for communication which is perhaps being aired for the first ever time.

Whether these characters manage to embrace or educate away his emotional insecurities and immaturity, as well as help Ivo see what they see in Ivo, remains for the reader to discover. However, in our current age of ‘talking therapies’ and awareness I found myself screaming for someone to tend to the character’s mental health as much as his physical health. In 2016 you’d hope someone as tortured by the past and ill-equipped to process its events unaided would have been given help and support on this front before he reached the hospice door. 

Where the responsibly fell between Ivo himself to find help and others to recognise (and be capable of recognising) the need is another point, as his self-perpetuated emotionally dulled state seems perhaps an easier medical puzzle to treat earlier in his life than the present, critical physical situation.

In short: if “any fool can be unhappy”, who is responsible for helping with the fool’s unhappiness and to what extent?
Two small observations from an ordinary reader: the writing arguably loses its flavour in the very closing pages – but not in any serious way – with an ending that may push your belief in what was practical and likely, especially if you are very rationally-minded.

In addition, the complexity of the book, which has a wonderful clarity overall, does increase a little towards the end. This may also be a matter of taste.

How you feel about the direction the book takes as the tale unfolds will depend how you feel about the power of a loving environment in the present to help a person reconcile the past and the methods of doing so used.

A point worth noting is that the book feels like an outstanding account of the priceless nature of nursing, especially when carried out in the deeply-talented and devoted way shown by Shiela.

It would be worth reading for this alone, however the sharp writing, snapping pace, readability and immersive, gripping world are among the further reasons.

You may not return from the the world James Hannah has created without some lingering questions for yourself about our emotions, our relationships and our past and, of course, a visit to a hospice room is never going to be entirely easy.

But while you are there you will experience a story laced with a tactile richness, a clarity and sharp turn of phrase that will leave you very glad you took the time to call by.

And the heartbreaking power of the book could even be further underlined in the future: if you ever seen a crocheted heart or ‘yarn-bomb’ in a tree, even years from now, it may stop you in your tracks and take you back to your time immersed at Ivo’s bedside 

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