Updated on August 5, 2015
39. ‘Ella Minnow Pea’ by Mark Dunn
Ella Minnow Pea is a character in this story, as well as a clever nod to some of the letters in the alphabet. This book is pure indulgence for languages lovers, saturated as it is with great wordplay and a focus on the nitty gritty of writing.
Set on the invented island of Nollop, which is known for its legal self-sufficiency, it follows the lives of the locals, who revere as a god the man (Nevin Nollop) who wrote the sentence ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.’ This sentence contains all the letters of the alphabet with a minimum of repetition, and it is written under Nollop’s memorial statue. One day a letter falls from the statue – a ‘z’ – and the town council decides to abolish its use in writing and speech, on pain of banishment or death, claiming the loss of the letter is the divine will of the Nollop. As more letters fall the island’s inhabitants find themselves in a race against time and their shrinking vocabulary, to find an even shorter sentence that includes every letter, and thus save their home.
The way the novel is written reflects the loss of letters: it is entirely composed of letters between the characters, so as the story progresses fewer and fewer letters are available. When the last ‘d’ falls the past tense is all but eradicated. It is an amazing writing exercise, and Dunn pulls it off fantastically. In fact, I’d love to give it a try myself.
Of course, it is also a lot more than an exercise in writing with restricted language. I also read it as a commentary upon religion: the council are so devoted to idolising Nollop that they refuse to listen to reason, and take their faith to ridiculous extremes. Even when a scientist turns up and tells them that the letters are falling because the cement holding them in place is old and failing, they argue that it is Nollop’s will for the cement to decay. As with any discussion about God, those with faith can always escape behind conveniently easy arguments, and all reason is trumped by their idol.
There are love affairs in the story, which move very rapidly, but this isn’t a criticism. With fewer opportunities to communicate, the lovers don’t have the time (or the letters) to beat around the bush. The ending is fantastic, and I could have kicked myself for not paying closer attention as I was reading the rest of the story. This is a brilliant book, cleverly constructed and rounded off beautifully.
“It is important that we say something to one another – any little thing. We are not low-tier animals. We are higher entities, am I right? Say something. A greeting. Anything.”
I first read about the concept of this book in a magazine, I think, and it’s been on my to read list for years. Then recently I found it for £1 in my local Amnesty bookshop, and I had to get it.
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?