A Fool’s Alphabet, by Sebastian Faulks

I have decided that I really do like Sebastian Faulks’s writing. There’s nothing specific that I can point to and say, “This is why I like Sebastian Faulks” but I really do find him very evocative and readable and beautiful. I found this even more with A Fool’s Alphabet than with Human Traces: Human Traces was very much about the ideas being discussed and developed, while A Fool’s Alphabet is about the style and the structure.

The structure is deceptively simple: each chapter takes place (sort of) in a different location, and each location starts with a different letter of the alphabet. I say sort of, because some of the chapters start out in one place and then flashback or actively reminisce to another one. I did learn very quickly to take the dates at the start of each chapter with a grain of salt – it was not always clear just how much of the chapter took place with its relevant date, or even how old Pietro (the main character) was . Some of the math I was doing for the dates didn’t really match up, so eventually I stopped paying attention to them. (At least one of the places was sort of dodgy as well: Terminal 5 for “T”? Really? It could be a statement about airports and whatnot, but somehow I doubt it.)
The structure works very well with the story, in that there isn’t really one. It’s very much a character study of Pietro Russell, an English/Italian post-war baby. There’s no plot in the “things happen” type of way: things happen, of course, but they are often irrelevant to the other events. It’s a sketch of a life, not a story. There’s no lesson, no moral, no overarching theme that I could see on first reading. (There may be one on close reading, but not on first reading.)
I’m not sure if I like Pietro. I was interested enough to keep reading about him, but I think that was due to the style rather than the character himself. I think, if I met him in real life, I wouldn’t notice him and probably wouldn’t have any desire to.
One of the interesting things, overall, is that the epigraphs at the beginning of the book are not upheld. Sometimes the epigraphs give you a clue to the theme or the “moral” (for lack of a better word), but this time they were actively denied at one point. This amused me, and reassured me, because I really hated the epigraphs and found them simplistic, Eurocentric – Western Eurocentric and Anglo-centric specifically – and wrong. I had a whole rant prepared about one of them, and if it had been a factor in the book, I probably would have stopped reading. But luckily, that was the one that Pietro also questioned, so I didn’t have to throw the book across the room. (I’ve done it before, with Last of the Mohicans; I have no qualms about doing it again.)

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