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04 December 2015

Novels to come out of Curtis Brown Creative #5: The A–Z of You and Me by James Hannah

by Leonora Craig Cohen

James Hannah attended the second of our creative writing courses in the autumn of 2011 and since taking those classes, he – like his classmates Tim Glencross, Kate Hamer and Annabelle Thorpe – he has become one of our 17 former students to sign a book deal. James (along with Kate Hamer and fellow CBC graduate Catherine Chanter) was named one of the Observer New Faces of Fiction 2015 last January, and his debut novel The A–Z of You and Me was published by Transworld imprint Doubleday in March 2015. The novel was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize the same year.

Ivo hasn’t treated his body very well, and he hasn’t treated his loved ones very well either. But he’s running out of time. Sheila, A nurse at the hospice in which he is dying of kidney failure – without the comfort of visits from friends or family – suggests that Ivo play a game to take his mind off the fear of death: for each letter of the alphabet, he must pick a body part and tell a story about it.

Slowly, Ivo starts to realise his whole life story is written in his body, and that he has been hurting himself instead of dealing with his problems. After his dad dies, Ivo eats his feelings in the form of chocolates and fizzy drinks, and his mum is too grief-stricken to stop him from these comfort binges. He falls in with Mal, who encourages him and his friend Kelvin to start smoking and drinking. And, as the years go by, Mal progresses from party-animal to full-time drug dealer and drags his friends down with him. Ivo can barely hang onto his unchallenging job at the garden centre, let alone progress forward with his life as he would like.  He develops diabetes, but even that doesn’t stop him using heroin, despite the fact that his illness means it’s likely he’ll need to go on the list for a kidney transplant in the future. Eventually his hedonism costs him his relationship with Mia, a beautiful nurse and the only person with whom he can be emotionally open. She is the ‘you’ to whom the story is told, but Ivo has tried so hard to forget what passed between them that only at the end of his life can he face the truth.

Despite being a novel about addiction and betrayal, what stands out most about The A–Z of You and Me is its moments of kindness: shown both by nurses Sheila and Mia toward Ivo, and by Ivo towards a girl whose mother is dying in the room next door. The A-Z of You and Me is by turns funny, playful and desperately sad – James Hannah’s MA in Samuel Beckett studies clearly paid off – and the fractured structure of the plot convincingly replicates the sensation of recovering memories long-suppressed and ramps up the reader’s sense of dread as we get closer to finding out what really happened.  Although the uncharitable might at first condemn Ivo for his choices, starting the story from inside his head helps us to understand him and sympathise with his isolation. The Independent praised it for ‘an elegance… and a compassion… that’s rare to find in a debut.’

The A–Z of You and Me by James Hannah is published in the UK by Doubleday. To buy a copy, please click here.

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).

We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).

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