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February 19, 2024

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets: Book Review

By Wendy Robards

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, by Kathleen Alcott.

But even one letter changes a meaning entirely; no matter their proximity, different points of an alphabet refuse to be represented as the same: there's no guarantee that someone standing at precisely the same longitude and latitude as you will remember the view the same way, no promise that one person's memory of a moment or a month will parallel yours, retain the same value, shape the years of living that follow. - from The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, page 9 -

Ida is growing up motherless after a tragic accident took her mother's life. James and Jackson are growing up fatherless when their father dies in prison. As their single parents connect, so do these three children, forming a family of sorts which grows more complicated as the years pass. Ida and Jackson's relationship turns from a sibling love into a romantic connection, while James slips into mental illness. Jackson is also struggling with an unusual sleep disorder that is becoming more and more violent. Narrated in the singular and introspective voice of Ida, The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets explores forbidden love, family dynamics, the search for identity, and recovery from loss.

Ida, James and Jackson are sympathetic characters who are struggling to find roots in the face of mostly absent parenting. And they turn to each other -- kids whose names begin with letters proximal to each other in the alphabet. This alphabetic coincidence is symbolic of their closeness, not only in geography, but in life experience and need which creates an intimacy and interdependency that devolves into something unhealthy. For James, the slip is into mental illness; but for Jackson and Ida, the result is an unraveling of their relationship altogether. Jackson's repressed anger emerges through sleepwalking and violence -- first toward objects, and then towards Ida. When Jackson moves on, Ida is left to wonder who she is without her childhood friend and lover.

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets is a bittersweet, often sad, coming of age novel. Kathleen Alcott deftly brings to life her characters with prose both lyrical and original. When we meet Ida she is reflecting back on her childhood -- the loss of her mother, the complex relationship which develops between she and Jackson, the simple needs of a child who is feeling around in the dark and navigating the complicated path toward adulthood. Ida's pain reverberates on the page -- it is tangible and difficult and at times feels unbearable. Alcott captures the despair perfectly. But despite the drape of sadness in this story, Alcott does not leave her readers completely bereft of hope. Ida, James and Jackson morph and grow, they slip apart and drift back together ... and through their journey luminous truths emerge to heal their broken hearts.

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets will appeal to readers who love literary fiction. This debut novel makes Kathleen Alcott an author to watch.


★ ★ ★ ★ Four stars out of five.

Catch all of Wendy Robard's reviews in her fabulous blog, "Caribousmom".


Article © Wendy Robards. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-12-03
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