Alphabet by Kathy Page
(Published 2014 by Biblioasis)
A prison narrative, concerned with sexuality, relationships, and rehabilitation. There were times I felt I couldn’t go on, Page’s prose was so devastatingly raw – yet never for one moment does the novel lose its clarity. There’s a deep compassion in the writing, but also a realist’s grasp of how difficult it is for a person to truly change.
Simon’s interest in words and language begins in prison, where he is serving life. All the scenes recorded in the novel have something to do with words. Page only gives us one scene from Simon’s first days in the prison because it involves a letter from his mother. The next time we see Simon, it’s months later. Simon is covered in words that he’s tattooed onto himself as he thinks about the past, how he is perceived by others, and who he really is. I really appreciated this – Page doesn’t write a typical entering-into-the-new-world-of-prison story – she puts us right in the middle of it.
I also appreciated that although like The Video Watcher this novel deals with problems associated with voyeurism, Page’s attention to gender and sexuality is nuanced and complicated. The women Simon interacts with in the novel are individuals with complex motives – even as Simon objectifies them, he struggles with their autonomy and agency. As part of his journey of rehabilitation, Simon tries to communicate with women and understand them. Letter writing, essays, drama re-enactment, are all ways words inform this struggle towards understanding and communication. Page doesn’t stop with male/ female relationships, though. Gender itself becomes more and more difficult to define as the novel goes on, and it’s through Simon’s friendship with a former inmate that Page really shifts the end of the novel towards a more hopeful conclusion for Simon, ambiguous as it is.
Devastating and engaging, well-paced and expertly crafted, Alphabet is definitely one of my favourite reads this year; I’ll be thinking about this book and its implications for a long time.