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On the face of it, A Fool's Alphabet sounds, well, a bit dull. It runs for around 260 pages and nothing much happens. It just follows the life of one man - Pietro Russell as he lives his daily life, and that's it. There is no secret quest, no conspiracy to uncover and no murders to solve. Pietro is like me and you: his life is characterised by the ordinary; he goes to school, grows up, gets married, has a job and travels a bit.
At this point you're probably wondering why on earth anyone would want to read it. The answer lies in its secret weapon which is a mildly contrived, but interesting plot driver. Following a chance conversation with his father, Pietro decides that before he dies, he will try and visit a city somewhere in the world which begins with every letter of the alphabet.
Lesser authors would turn this into some sort of breathless "quest" but Faulks is too clever to get involved in such nonsense. Instead, the visiting of the various cities is woven into the otherwise unremarkable fabric of Pietro's life: they are simply places he visits on holiday or business trips. It's a clever little device, because they are so carefully woven into the narrative, they become almost an incidental, background part of the story whilst at the same time providing the book's whole raison d'être and an instant hook for the reader.
It also gives Faulks a structure to his book. There are 28 chapters in total, each one named after the city in which it takes place. Faulks, however, has another trick up his sleeve. Since Pietro does not have a grand master plan to achieve his goal, he doesn't visit them sequentially, starting with A and working through the alphabet. Rather, he does so randomly, ticking off the letter as and when life happens to take him to a place beginning with a particular letter. As such the book has a fragmented chronology. It is arranged alphabetically, but in fact, there might be 20 years between him visiting a city beginning with A and one with B; whilst in between, he might go to one beginning with Y.
Initially, this makes the book somewhat confusing. The start of each chapter gives you the city in which this one takes place, together with the date. Since characters appear and disappear out of Pietro's life (as happens in real life) it can sometimes be a little tricky to remember exactly who is who, where these events happened in relation to others you have already read about, or how they might impact on the future. There is sometimes be a sense of mild frustration as Faulks makes reference to things which you have not yet found out about (because they happen in a city you haven't reached yet), but which for Pietro are already in the past. The fragmented chronology will bamboozle and annoy readers who prefer a straightforward narrative structure.
However, Faulks never stretches the point. If he makes reference to an event, we generally find out about it properly within a chapter or two, so that we don't get too frustrated or (worse) forget about it all together. This results in a very clever piece of writing, with a story that is carefully woven together in a way which piques the reader's interest enough to keep them reading, without ever becoming too smug and annoying.
Using this technique of alphabeticised chapters and fragmented timescales, Faulks actually adds an important element to the book: suspense. Certainly, if Faulks had simply told the tale of Pietro's life in straightforward chronological fashion, it's doubtful anyone would have wanted to read the book. By fragmenting it, he hooks his reader in. More and more of Pietro's life is revealed as you read on and, like a jigsaw puzzle, the more pieces we see, the easier it is to view the bigger picture. His life might not be anything special, but to see it slowly revealed before our eyes makes for a surprisingly interesting read.
The quality of Faulks' writing also shines through in making this potentially dull plot more interesting than it really has any right to be. Pietro is made to seem so real and interesting that you want to follow him around and see what happens next, even if the answer is more or less consistently "nothing much". It's reality TV in book form; it takes a completely nobody and makes you interested in the minutiae of their dull existence. There is a certain indefinable quality about the book that keeps you reading, no matter how inconsequential it all is.
The key word in that last paragraph is "inconsequential". I read this book around three month's ago and as I'm revising this review (originally written shortly after I finished it) I'm struggling to recall much of the detail. Certainly, I remember being impressed with how the chapter starting with Z tied everything together so neatly, but for the life of me, I can't remember why. Nothing about this book matters or will stay with you for very long after you close it for the last time. Still, does that really matter? Surely what's important is that you enjoy it while you are reading?
It's not a book which will be to everyone's tastes. Inevitably, some will find the fragmented timeline confusing and frustrating. Others, looking for excitement and adventure will wonder why on earth anyone would want to read about such a boring life. If you read as a form of escapism, a way of breaking free of your own humdrum existence, A Fool's Alphabet will seem like a complete waste of time.
Never mind. What you have here is a very strong piece of writing. The actual plot may be inconsequential, but the way it is told makes for a fascinating read. The book has been out a while now (it was originally published in 1992) so can be picked up pretty cheap second hand. Much though I enjoyed it, I would suggest this is the way to go if you are interested in reading it: the RRP for a new copy is around £7 and that's a little on the expensive side for a book you are only likely to read once.
A Fool's Alphabet
© Copyright SWSt 2010
Sebastian Faulks worked as a journalist for 14 years before taking up writing books full time in 1991. He is the author of A Trick of Light, The Girl at the Lion D'Or, A Fool's Alphabet, The Fatal Englishman, Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and most recently On Green Dolphin Street. Audiobooks of Birdsong; Charlotte Gray and On Green Dolphin Street are also available.