Book Review: The End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

The End of the AlphabetThe End of the Alphabet by C.S. Richardson

My rating: ★★★

Death? Yes, yes, death hovers near us all. And it is sad that it makes us sad. But I know a story.

Such is the life of Ambrose Zephyr. At 50 years of age, Ambrose is diagnosed with a fatal but unidentifiable illness — an illness that, within 30 day’s time, will leave him dead. Yes, the doctor offered, writes Richardson, unfair would be a very good word about now. Zephyr’s soon and imminent death, however, makes up only one element to this story.

Meet Zappora Ashkenazi, more commonly known as Zipper. A literary editor for the third-most read fashion magazine, brilliant cook, reads everything, has impeccable fashion sense, but most of all, Zipper is the loyal and loving wife to Ambrose Zephyr. With the distinct absence of children, the couple dedicate more time fulfilling their careers and living “contentedly” together “in a narrow London terrace full of books.” What happens, then, when a couple create an ideal life together — a union in which needs are met by each other and through their work — once the other is gone? Contentment shatters, and Zipper must cope with the facts. In a month, she will be alone; no husband and no children.

And what will I have when he’s gone?

Nothing. No growing ancient together, no retiring to the pied-à-terre, no children, no grandchildren, come to that. No more. No life. Nothing. Blank.

But you never wanted children, Kitts said.

I never wanted this. I is for I don’t know what to do.

Zippper, feeling a deep sadness, anticipates Ambrose’s loss and examines life choices — likely regretting that she never had a child — while wishing not to let go. If one extends time from days to weeks to decades, it will still come short, as there is little time to live in comparison to how much life could be experienced. As Zipper feels torn between wanting to make the most out  of limited days but wishing those days were not limited, Ambrose faces his own death and what he never accomplished in life. What is a couple to do?

Indeed, said the doctor. Arrangements.

Ambrose Zephyr suggested, for all in the outer office to hear, that the doctor might want to wait one damn minute before suggesting that Ambrose might want to arrange his remaining days. Days that until moments before had been assumed would stretch to years. With luck, to decades. Not shrink to weeks.

As such, husband and wife agree on a rash decision to travel the world, but perhaps not in the way one might think — and certainly not in the way Ambrose initially planned. Ambrose Zephyr and Zappora Ashkenazi: A.Z. & Z.A. From the beginning to the end of the alphabet and back again.

In under 200 pages (depending on the copy; mine meets 119), the couple’s adventures and turmoil could have been wrung out, extended, and glossed in rich detail inside a 300 -500 page novel instead. Yet the swiftness is rather appropriate, and, as I find it, where the appeal rests. Hand a person generations of time, and he will still wish for more. There is difficulty in saying goodbye and accepting what is in order to let go, to release the grip on something that was expected to last or taken for granted.

In fluid, conversational tone, Richardson’s charm sits in the vast scope of story-telling accomplished through brevity. Not overtly sentimental, Richardson manages to pack in enough pow and flair that, through the power of simplicity, captivates intrigue and grasps emotions. Both nimble and discerning, The End of the Alphabet is tale about love and life I recommend anyone journey.

“An alphabet of the language of lovers, a beautiful fable of art and mortality: elegant, wise, and humane. I like to think of the happiness this book will bring. I’m sure it will be given as a gift between lovers, and will inspire many journeys — geographical and emotional.”

— Chris Cleave, author of Incendiary

For those interested, watch C.S. Richardson share his thoughts on The End of the Alphabet below:

Recommend a… (book someone else recommended to you)

Recommend A… is a weekly meme run by Chick Loves Lit. Click here to check out future prompts and take part!

A book recommend to me by someone else (multiple people, actually) is A Game of Thrones, but the last book I recall someone suggesting I read — and that I did read! — is…

The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi & illustrated by J.K. Drummond
Published January 31st, 2011 | Subterranean Press

Magic has a price. But someone else will pay.

Every time a spell is cast, a bit of bramble sprouts, sending up tangling vines, bloody thorns, and threatening a poisonous sleep. It sprouts in tilled fields and in neighbors’ roof beams, thrusts up from between street cobbles, and bursts forth from sacks of powdered spice. A bit of magic, and bramble follows. A little at first, and then more–until whole cities are dragged down under tangling vines and empires lie dead, ruins choked by bramble forest. Monuments to people who loved magic too much.

In paired novellas, award-winning authors Tobias Buckell and Paolo Bacigalupi explore a shared world where magic is forbidden and its use is rewarded with the axe. A world of glittering memories and a desperate present, where everyone uses a little magic, and someone else always pays the price.

In the beleaguered city of Khaim, a lone alchemist seeks a solution to a deadly threat. The bramble, a plant that feeds upon magic, now presses upon Khaim, nourished by the furtive spell casting of its inhabitants and threatening to strangle the city under poisonous vines. Driven by desperation and genius, the alchemist constructs a device that transcends magic, unlocking the mysteries of bramble’s essential nature. But the power of his newly-built balanthast is even greater than he dreamed. Where he sought to save a city and its people, the balanthast has the potential to save the world entirely–if it doesn’t destroy him and his family first.

I hopefully will get to the Song of Ice & Fire series soon — preferably before the year ends — but I am glad to have read Bacigalupi’s short novella back in 2011. The Alchemist tells the story of Jeoz: widow, father of two, and desperate to cure his sick child. In a place where magic is outlawed, Jeoz risks punishment by casting spells that subdue his daughter’s bramble-induced illness. However, with every cast spell means new bramble: a deadly plant encasing Khaim, threatening to take over completely. Determined to find a solution — both for his child’s health and the end of bramble — Jeoz creates the balanthast, thus providing Khaim the ability to free itself. To the misfortune of Jeoz and his family, this wondrous invention also brings unforeseen consequences.

Ninety-five pages long, Bacigalupi’s words breathe life to the story. Quickly paced, the language proves tactful and not butchered by disruptive sentence flow or poor execution. Instead, I find it a surprisingly fun and lively read — one that I don’t mind reading again and again. I haven’t checked out Tobias S. Buckell’s The Executioness  yet, but it may interest you more to read both back-to-back.

You can find my review here!