You’ll have to excuse the fact that I refer to James Hannah as Jim throughout. I find it too strange and it makes me feel too weird to refer to him by his full name when I’ve only ever known him as Jim. By the way, I’ve not just adopted a nickname for an author I’ve not met – I actually do know him…
The A to Z of You and Me is a love story told by Ivo, a dying 40 year old man who is living his last days in a hospice. The story is told through the premise of the A to Z game, suggested by his Palliative Care Nurse, Sheila. With every letter of the alphabet, Ivo must think of a story connected to a body part of that letter.
What I think is wonderful about the structure of this novel is that despite being told through individual memories and not as a chronological narrative, it did not feel bitty or confusing but instead felt powerfully intense. Every word adds to the story, and consequently there are no mundane or filler paragraphs. I also loved that the reader is able to get to know Ivo and the supporting characters in exactly the way that Ivo perceives them, making us feel closer to him and feel a stronger sense of empathy than perhaps we would have if first person narrative wasn’t used.
The style of The A to Z of You and Me reminded me a lot of David Nicholls’ One Day although I preferred this much, much more. Both books are funny whilst remaining touching and terribly tragic. The reason that I liked The A to Z of You and Me more was because much of One Day left me feeling disappointed and deflated whereas I felt neither of these things with this book.
I think that Jim did a fantastic job of creating a main character that was not only believable but that felt so real that both my 50 year old mum and my 19 year old self connected with him. There was not one moment in the book where I felt that I would have had a better understanding of Ivo if I too was a 40 year old man and I think that feeling a bond with him was so important to my enjoyment of the story.
Another thing that made it such a pleasurable read were the completely rounded secondary characters. Despite the lack of description, the believable speech and necessary details were enough for me to build up a picture of each supporting character. Sheila’s voice and dialogue in particular was described so perfectly that I completely fell in love with her. There is a lovely story behind Sheila’s character; her voice and attitude is based on a woman that Jim used to work with and she is named in honour of his wife Christine’s mum.
St. Catherine’s Hospice in Preston provided inspiration for much of the story and it was wonderful that we were able to donate to the hospice at the book launch in return for an ‘I love Sheila’ badge. I’ve never been to a hospice before although my mum, who used to be a nurse, says that the descriptions of Ivo’s end of life care felt very real and being able to recognise his situation made the story a very emotional read for her.
Everything about this novel has been considered with care and there are so many clever references for people to find. My favourite, and I think the most beautiful, reference is on the dedications page where it say, ‘For Sheila & For You’, a sentence with so many meanings. ‘Sheila’ is a dedication to Christine’s mum whose care provided the story but who sadly never got to read the book that she inspired. ‘Sheila’ also refers directly to the character in the book as well as metaphorically to all of the Palliative Care Nurses who support patients through their last days. The ‘You’ refers to the reader but also the girl that Ivo is in love with.
The fact that the dedications page gifts the book to both real and fictional people, along with the subtle but ever present ‘Jim’ references that run throughout make this book so unmistakably his and I think that if this is all he ever writes, it will have been enough. I cannot recommend The A to Z of You and Me highly enough and I encourage everyone to read it.
Many thanks to Jim for patiently and kindly answering all of my questions without resorting to blocking me on Twitter.