Monday 29 August 2016


Monkey and I bought a few books in Waterstones the other day. 'Ella Minnow Pea' by Mark Dunn is on my 101 Books list and it was on one of their display tables, so I picked it up. As usual it is so long ago that I read about it, but it was worth the wait. Such a clever, original and entertaining book, described in the inside as "a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable".

When I left Poly I taught myself to type on my mum's manual typewriter by typing the phrase 'The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog' over and over. While I never got very good at using more than four or five fingers it did teach me the position of all the letters so I can type fairly rapidly without having to search. This story gives us Nevin Nollop, the imagined creator of this magical sentence, and a small independent island community (also called Nollop) off the coast of America that has come to venerate his memory. When one day one of the letters falls from the monument that bears the sentence the local council decide that it is Nevin himself speaking to them from beyond the grave and that this letter (Z) must be expunged from the lexicon (both oral and written) of the community. To begin with the reaction is almost bemusement, but the punishments are harsh and swift and the Law Enforcement Brigade ensures that the population are quickly cowed into submission. The description of the events takes the form of letters between Ella and Tassie, cousins trapped by poor road conditions on opposite sides of the island. As time passes the correspondence increases to include a wider variety of the island's occupants. In line with the gradually tumbling letters the correspondence also begins to take on a peculiar quality. You hardly notice the absence of the Z, and even the Q and the J, but when the D goes everyone begins to struggle. The protests are few and short-lived. People are exiled in ever increasing numbers as a small resistance movement struggles to contrive a 32 letter sentence of the 26 letters, to disprove the divinity of Nollop.

Thurby, September 21
Throbbing Sister Mittie,
Still you are luckier to be in the village. Eighteen families were sent away this morning. Many of the members I knew. Losing the first three letters was relatively easy in comparison to this most recent banishment.
Slips of the tongue. Slips of the pen. All over town people hesitate, stammer, fumble for ways to express themselves, grip-grasping about for linguistic concoctions to serve the simplest of purposes. Receiving no easy purchase.
I go to the baker's. I point. We all point. We collapse upon our mattresses at the close of each evening, there to feel ... feel ... utterly, wholly diminished.
There. Now I happily enlist in the 'first offence club.' It feels exhilarating! You know I cannot allow you to be a member of any club to which I cannot belong. I will show a copy of this letter to one of our local authorities.
I will receive my official censure.
We shall be sister-true as always.

The book is described as a political allegory, charting the rise of a totalitarian state, but I found it to be much more about religious orthodoxy (and really the whole notion that if you give people arbitrary authority it is likely to get easily out of hand). The council claim an omniscient god-like status for their Nollop, they are like a priesthood, interpreting the signs and making these rules for the good of his followers. In a pronouncement issues by the High Council:

"7.The falling tiles can represent only one thing: a challenge - a summons to bettering out lot in the face of such deleterious complacency, and in the concomitant presence of false contentment and rank self-indulgence.
8. There is no room for alternative interpretations.
9. Interpretation of events in any other way represents heresy.
10. Heretics will be punished, as was, for example, Mr Nollop's saucy stenographer, who was cashiered for flippantly announcing to her employer the ease with which she could, herself, create such a sentence as his." (p.53)

Some people take the path of least resistance by ceasing to communicate and with desperation some of the remaining residents try to support and encourage each other. I had to partly just go with the slightly surreal and absurd scenario because my enjoyment in reading the book was the playing with language and words and the way the letter writers get around using the forbidden letters. New words are invented to represent the days of the week after the D falls, but these words themselves mutate over time as other letters become verboten. The odd foreign word sneaks in and then a vaguely twisted phonetic writing system emerges:

Montae, Nophemger 12
To the Towgate Phamilee:
Please aspect my hartphelt simpathee at this time. Georgeanne past awae last night phrom let poisoning. She paintet her whole selph phrom het to toe with manee prettee, ornamental hews. She was so resplentent, almost ratiant in repose - the happee, appealing pigments an aesthetit reminter of her lophlee warm spirit.
She shoot loog smashing 4 the phooneral.
Her remains shoot arriph shortlee.
With all regrets,
Ella Minnow Pea"

I assume that, like myself, many readers spot the answer to the community's conundrum when it appears in one of the letters, and I laughed out loud as if the whole book had been one very long shaggy dog story; Mark Dunn manages to integrate into the story, in such a wonderfully convoluted way, the ability of one of the characters to write the sentence without it seeming out of place. The book made an interesting contrast to 'The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society' which I also loved but which focussed much more on the community of people being repressed and how they supported each other. So enjoyable, but then at the end I felt so thick for not spotting the obvious in the title. Now have to go and see if he has written anything else.


  1. I loved Ella Minnow Pea and thought it exceedingly well done.

    The summer I read it, I tried to get everyone I knew to read it but I don't think I succeeded because it comes across in the synopsis as something quite different.

    Anyway, I'm glad to see someone else championing it too!

  2. Hi Debbie, It is strange how often I read a blurb and then discover that whoever wrote it probably hadn't read the book. I will definitely be pressing it on other readers.


Thanks for stopping by. Thoughts, opinions and suggestions (reading or otherwise) always most welcome.