REVIEW: A Fool’s Alphabet

I’m a big fan of Sebastian Faulks. I’ve read Birdsong, Charlotte Gray and Engleby and thoroughly enjoyed them and I have Paris Echo, Snow Country, The Girl at the Lion D’Or, Where My Heart Used to Beat and On Green Dolphin Street sitting on various bookshelves waiting to be read.

This one, however, is A Fool’s Alphabet first published in 1992. It was Faulks’ third novel and predates Birdsong by a year.

I very much enjoyed the way this book is segmented. It is divided into 26 chapters with a geographical place representing each letter of the alphabet and a date as the title of the chapter. We run through the alphabet in order, but not the timeline, which ranges from 1914 to 1991.

The story is that of Pietro Russell, post-war baby, son of an English soldier and an Italian woman at whose home the soldier was billeted after being injured fighting in Italy in 1944.

The chapters flick backwards and forwards in time as they tell key events in Pietro’s life.

It begins in Anzio, Italy, in 1944 where Pietro’s father Raymond Russell meets his mother Francesca. Then it jumps about all over the world. One minute we are in Surrey in England, the next we could be in New York, or Hong Kong, or Sri Lanka, or Paris – Pietro is a well-travelled man.

Each place and time reveals a small snippet of his life as Pietro searches for answers to some of the conflicts in his life.

As it dances around place and time it ought to be confusing, but it really isn’t. It was a little like doing a jigsaw puzzle where you know what the subject is but the whole picture isn’t revealed until the end… and that was something I enjoyed very much.

Apart from being half Italian, losing his mother at a young age and having a variety of jobs all over the world, the character of Pietro isn’t unusual. Our protagonist is a normal guy with normal problems trying to figure out why certain things in his life happened. There’s a bit of that in everyone isn’t there?

I enjoy Sebastian Faulks’ style and I also enjoy the fact that he does his homework. Working for many years as a journalist will do that to you. This contains information about random things like the work and death of John Keats and why stations on the Paris Metro have been so named and I love that – though many people don’t.

This is not one of the most popular Sebastian Faulks book but I really enjoyed the concept and thought it cleverly done and beautifully written.

It seems to be a ‘marmite’ type of book – you either love it or hate it. I loved it and the only way you’re going to find out whether you do too is to read it yourself.

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