Alphabet

by Kathy Page

Published by McArthur & Company

292 pages, 2005


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Dark, Disturbing... and Delicious

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

 

In Alphabet, Kathy Page's dark and lovely seventh novel, Simon, the main character, has courageous added to the many words tattooed across his body. Page is the truly courageous one. The things we can't understand are often the things that terrify us the most. How many of us can even begin to understand the mind of a killer? As murders go, Simon's is pretty frightening. He's in for life for killing his girlfriend. She made the fatal mistake of wanting him to admire and love her; she took off her glasses and refused to put them back on again.

In taking us into both Simon's cell and his mind, the author is taking huge chances. How can she know enough about a killer and his confinement to be convincing? Re: the latter, it turns out she can, having actually done her own stint in prison -- as writer-in-residence at a men's penitentiary in the United Kingdom.

But time spent observing or participating in a penitentiary is not sufficient to enable her to unravel the tangle of a deviant mind, to create a credible fictional character who is not the largely one-dimensional killer we are used to on Law and Order. How does she do this? Where did she get the courage?

"Like many writers, I'm driven by my interest in people," Page told me recently. "What makes them tick, how they survive. I guess difficult characters are my specialty. I do have a training as a psychotherapist (though I've only briefly worked as such) and I used to run group sessions in a drugs rehab, so I have seen a fair amount of very damaged and dangerous people .... I also researched the kinds of therapeutic program offered in the one UK prison that offered therapy at the time and the more behaviourally driven courses offered in the wider prison system. I did some of this research years ago, during the prison residency, and some of it recently from Salt Spring. It was amazing how much relevant material I could get via interlibrary loans though the tiny library here on Salt Spring .... But the library is run by mainly elderly, female volunteers, and I could sometimes sense disquiet in the messages on my voicemail: 'This is for Kathy Page. Her book The Use of the Penile Plethysmogrpah Test is awaiting collection.'!"

Although she now lives on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Page's book is set in Britain . Readers will soon realize they are in a slightly different world. Welcome to Slag, Sod's law, nonce, bog-standard, intriguing words whose meanings that readers outside of the UK will likely need to guess.

Simon, who is described as arrogant, manipulating, bright and sensitive, has tattooed these labels all over his body, words defining how the world labels him: waste of space, a threat to women, stupid, callous, bastard, murderer and then finally courageous. In prison he has learned the power and the seduction of words. He learns to read and write, begins to write letters and begins to take hesitant steps toward relationships. The problem is that he's still dangerous. Who can be more perilous than someone who has taken a life and doesn't understand fully why he did it? Until he can begin to understand that, he is in more than one prison. Will he get out? Page is not one to provide pat answers.

Alphabet, is a finalist for this year's Governor General's award, Canada's highest literary honor. No wonder. | November 2005

 

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.