Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn

Many moons ago a friend of mine recommended this book to me, and I finally decided to pay the 50p and get an inter-library loan so I could read it.

Its the first time in what feels like an age that I was so hooked on a story that I demolished it in a few hours. Okay so its not the longest book in the world but give me some credit, it does get pretty hard to read the further you get.

The book is an epistolary novel, aka a story told through letters. These letters are from and to an island called Nollop, a fictitious place named after the founder Nevin Nollop, the man who supposedly created the famous sentence ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’ – you know the one that uses the entire alphabet?

This island has worked hard to retain the use of letters as communication, having hardly any computers or working phone-lines, embracing language and using it to its fullest unlike the lazy citizens of the USA who are the neighbours of this small island.

The famous vulpine/canine sentence created by Nollop adorns the council building, but then one day one of the tiles falls off – its the letter Z. The girl who finds it takes the broken tile to the council who immediately jump to an extraordinary conclusion that it is a sign from above and Z should henceforth be removed from speech and writing. This renders all books and music illegal and the beginning of a scary period of time in the islands history as more tiles start to fall.

I thought this was going to be a light book, but it really isn’t. Its dark and oddly reminiscent of every fascist regime that has ever existed, or any fundamental religion with any kind of power.

As the letters are gradually removed from the alphabet the islanders find it harder and harder to communicate without breaking the rules, punishment for which includes verbal warning, a day in the stocks or a whipping, and finally for a third offence banishment from the island or death. Scary huh?

Dunn writes as Ella, her mother and father, her cousin and aunt, and a few other sideline characters integral to illustrating the perverseness of the new laws and the indomitable spirit of the human race. You get to know each person through their letters or what is written about them, learning about why they stay on such a backward island and how important it is to fight for freedom of speech – even if in this instance it isn’t because a journalist has uncovered the latest MP scandal.

The less letters available to the writers the harder it is to read what has been written, and I confess to reading a lot of the last quarter out loud just to make sense of what I was seeing. I commend Dunn for his skill in writing, it must have been as though he lived on that island too as he could not use the same letters that Ella and her compatriots were now banned from using.

This is a clever little book, I recommend reading it as it captivated my attention even while some very athletic men with big thighs were passing a ball around. It is an intriguing example of another way that people in power who are just a touch nuts might one day ruin our lives.

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