Book Review: Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters (Mark Dunn)

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“Inventive and impressive … as politically engaging as it is fun.” ~ Big Issue

TL;DR – This book is a strange little treasure. A must read for lovers of words.


Why I read it…

I honestly have no idea how I came to own this book – I just remember one day I didn’t own it, the next day I did. I assume tumblr had something to do with it. I assume that I read about how unique it was somewhere and thought I’d give it a shot.

Also, it was a the “A book I by an author I haven’t read” category for my reading challenge.

The Story…

Off the coast of America is an Island called Nollop. Named for the revered Nevin Nollop (deceased), creator of the pangram “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

Nollop is not an advanced nation – it’s not even keeping up with the rest of the world. But what Nollop lacks in technological advancement, it’s makes up for with the adoration of language. The Nollopian’s adore words – especially Ella. They adore words, and they idolise the aforementioned Nevin Nollop. A monument to his linguistic prowess stands proud for all to see – tiles with individual letters spelling out the famous pangram.

One day, a tile falls from the monument – the letter Z. The governing body of Nollop – being so fanatically devoted – declare the falling of the tile to represent an instruction from Nollop himself! The message is interpreted to mean the Nollopians should never used the letter again. Not in speech, not in writing…and those who break this divine law are severely punished.

The book is written as a series of letters from various Nollopians. As more tiles fall from the aging monument, the Nollopians are forced to abandon the variety of words they adore so much, until they can take no more…

What I liked…

The book itself is an example – albeit a very strange one – of totalitarian government, fanatical religious leadership and censorship. As the letters fall from the monument, so too are they removed from the book. Dunn writes very cleverly, managing to keep as much variety and love of language in each letter, despite the every increasing pressure caused by the rapidly decrease pool of usable letters. It is clever, not just because it is a physically difficult task, but also because Dunn manages to express so much emotion in so many ways, and when Ella’s heart breaks, my heart broke too.

The format itself, a series of somewhat connected letters, is a very novel and highly effective form of delivery. It was not just a gimmick – it brought the story to life. It took me a little while to get my head around it, and might have been irritating if the story wasn’t so engaging.

Finally, I loved the variety of ‘authors’ for the letters. The letters are written by many different characters; all with different views and ways of dealing with an incredibly difficult situation. Perhaps one of the most difficult, but most rewarding things about this book is that you find yourself questioning which of the characters approaches you think you would follow if you were in their place. Questions like this are what usually make books about totalitarianism very difficult, and often soul crushing to read – but the admittedly bizarre situation allows you to consider these ethical dilemmas, something which I find really important.

What I disliked…

Nothing. I loved it.

Final thoughts…

This book seems really strange. The premise is strange, the way it uses an ever decreasing pool of letters is strange. The use of letters instead of ‘normal’ prose is weird. BUT it is beautiful. It is challenging. It is insightful. It is art.

This book may be better suited to those with an appreciation for linguistic acrobatics, and the art of words, rather than the casual reader – but I would still encourage the casual reader to try it and see. It’s more than worth the effort.

Please note: I am in no way affiliated with the author or publishers. I bought this book with my own money for my own reasons. The opinions contained within are my own and have not been influenced by any external entity!