Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Or can they?

The Flame Alphabetby Ben Marcus

Before Beryl Bainbridge Reading week, I posted about how I’d essentially bought this book on the basis of its cover alone which is rather stunning, and how it would be the first book I read after Beryl. Now, I’ve read it and the question is did it live up to its cover?

The book is narrated by Sam, and at the beginning he and his wife Claire are planning to slip away from their home, abandoning their daughter, for she is making them ill.  An epidemic has struck, and children’s speech has become toxic to adults.  Claire is suffering particularly badly and hides away in her room. Sam has distraction mechanisms, and at night when their daughter Esther is out or asleep, concocts potions in his kitchen, anything to help. Sam and Claire’s relationship is flagging under the constant barrage of lethal words from their daughter.

Claire appeared in the doorway, fully dressed, brushing the last of her hair.
“Why do you keep yelling my name?” she asked.
“I wanted you to see something,” I said. “This show I’m watching. On this guy who died.”
“Well you could have said that. I wish you wouldn’t yell my name. I really can’t stand it.”
I apologized to her.
“It’s fine,” she said, leaving the room. “But I can’t stand it. Please don’t do that any more.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, feeling less sorry.
“And I said it’s fine,” she yelled from another room. “Stop apologizing.”
Sorry, I said to myself, wondering how many times in my marriage I’d said that, how many times I’d meant it, how many times Claire had actually believed it, and, most important, how many times the utterance had any impact whatsoever on our dispute. What a lovely chart one could draw of this word Sorry.

Sam and Claire are members of a secret Jewish sect of ‘forest Jews’.  They have secret synagogue for two in a hut in the forest, where radio transmissions are piped in through orange subterranean cables.  At first, it is only Jewish children who develop this lethal weapon.

One day, Sam meets a man, Murphy, a disciple of scientist LeBov, who seems to know too much. He tells Sam about a place up north, Forsythe, where they’re working on a cure, and Sam with his skills would be welcome to join them. Sam is hooked, and when, on the night they were planning to go, Claire disappears, he realises he has to go there.  As language begins to fail, what happens there will shock him to his core.

Don’t be fooled by the quotation above, for this book is no normal family drama, nor is it a dystopian thriller.  It’s boldly experimental, full of weird science, and the sub-plot about the forest Jews was totally baffling. The goings on at Forsythe were horrific and made me think of Nazi Joseph Mengele!

The underlying theme of the book, about language and what happens when we have poor communication, is sound. Many teenagers go through a phase of hurting their parents in real life anyway. Despite the novel’s intellectual credentials, the language issue seemed a bit repetitive and even heavy-handed at times.

There is little character development – we don’t find out much about Sam, Claire, or Esther’s back story. The mysterious Murphy is the most interesting character, and until the later parts he remains an enigma. We also know nothing about the origins of the disease, its spread, its pathology.  We live in Sam’s present, and only hear his voice telling the story, and we share in his obsessions.  The deliberate choice not to give this information did make it frustrating for me, (in the same way as I felt the about Arthur C Clarke Award winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers).

In summary, The Flame Alphabet is a hard book to describe and pin down.  I can’t say I enjoyed it, but once started, I felt compelled to read to the end to see if I could comprehend it. One for fans of experimental fiction. (6/10)

* * * * *
I bought my copy.  To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Flame Alphabetby Ben Marcus, pub June 2012, Granta hardback, 289 pages.

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12 thoughts on “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Or can they?

  1. I’d been intrigued at the time of your original post on this about how it would turn out. It sounds unusual to say the least! Now that Ive read your review I think I’ll give this a miss – I know that feeling of not exactly enjoying a book but being compelled to finish all too well!!!

    • As well as the lovely cover, all the plaudits from authors, like Michael Chabon whom I enjoy and respect, on the back really made me want to read it … Hey ho – you win some you lose some. The good thing is I’m really enjoying the book I’m currently reading!

  2. The idea is interesting and the cover is certainly distinctive but I’m afraid that you lost me on the ‘experimental fiction’ bit!
    I’ve recently also made a pledge to myself that since there are so many books out there that I do want to read, if I find that I am not enjoying something, I will abandon it forthwith and not feel guilty about it!
    Well that’s the theory anyway!

  3. I had decided to abandon this one at the 100 page mark, but your review is actually making me think about finishing it. I want to know what goes on at Forsythe! It is so weird and frustrating, but there are moments of genius sprinkled throughout. I might wait a week or two and see if it is still calling to me.

    • That’s why I kept going too – there were hints of something exciting going on somewhere else with all Sam’s interest in LeBov, and I had to know what was going on with the cables… The ending is suitably enigmatic too, so if you do resume reading it, I’m dying to know your final thoughts.

  4. I think you’ve summed up my feelings about this book perfectly – a great idea, some fantastic writing, and once you start reading you feel compelled to finish it (and I actually liked the ending) but you have to stick with it at points as it gets quite weird and a bit gruesome.

    I loved the observation of the “forest jews” and how their faith works. However, the bit at Forsyth, when he is trying to decipher language by only seeing partial bits of words, did bring to mind Monty Python and the “world’s funniest joke” sketch (“one of the translators saw two words and had to spend a few weeks in hospital, etc.”)…but overall, full marks for trying something fresh and original, a dystopian novel squarely for adults, and some serious scholarship in their on the history of language I thought…

    • Thanks Mark. If I’d remembered that sketch, I wouldn’t have been so frustrated with the alphabet testing!

  5. I was intrigued after seeing that you’d bought this and learning the premise, so I read the sample on Amazon. I really wanted to keep on reading to find out what exactly was going on, but it sounds like you never properly find out! I’m not sure about it now – to buy or remove from wishlist? Hmmm.

    • Difficult! It’s the sort of book that you need to be very open-minded about. It is frustrating in parts, but the flashes of brilliance make you want to carry on…

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