My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is such a fun concept and interesting premise that it was on my TBR list for a long time. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, I just want to re-read it again and again. And make everyone around me read it.
Ella Minnow Pea is set on the little island of Nollop, just off the coast of the US. An island that has renounced almost all modern technology in favour of veneration of words and language, in honour of their favourite son, Nevin Nollop, who coined the ubiquitous pangram (a sentence which contains all the letters of the alphabet) “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
When the letter Z falls from the statue on which this phrase is immortalised, the Council decrees that it is a sign from the great Nollop, and so, ban the use of the fallen letter. This requires almost all published work to be confiscated and the Islanders to be very careful about their word choice, as mistakes as severely punishable. The absence of Z is somewhat manageable, but when more letters fall communication becomes so fraught with challenges that most Islanders are exiled, leave, or are rendered mute.
Ella Minnow Pea is indeed ‘A Novel in Letters’ as its subtitle suggests, in more way than one. It is entirely an epistolary novel, displaying all the titular Ella’s correspondence. It is also, clearly, a novel about letters and language. Dunn revels in communicating in what, by the end, is only a mere suggestion of the English language. It takes a bit of mental gymnastics initially, but soon his mad methods are comprehensible.
This is Dunn’s first novel, after decades as a successful playwright. There are some points of improvement certainly. The love interest feels a little tacked-on, and the political side and citizen response to the whole calamity is well under-explained. Also the main letter-writers have quite a similar voice so it is often hard to distinguish one from another. But he tracks Ella’s despair and near madness quite well.
This quirky timeless little fable is such a quick read, that it can be easily dismissed as nothing more. However, upon closer examination it is an (mostly light-hearted) exploration of totalitarian governments and the importance of our right to freedom of expression. Aandd, for word lovers, it leaves you with a newfound appreciation for even the most seemingly unimportant letters.
Overall, I found this to be a cute, humorous linguistic exploration and I am very keen to read some more of Dunn’s work.