Review: Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

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Should be a classic

Clever, quirky, punny and relevant!

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Ella Minnow Pea is described as “a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable” on its cover. Already you get the sense that this is not going to be an easy, relaxing summer read, and indeed it isn’t, but that should definitely not count against it. Mark Dunn’s ‘novel in letters’ is a quirky, clever, cautionary tale that aught to be read by book lovers and word geeks all over!

It is set in the fictional island of Nollop, situated of the coast of South Carolina. Totally independent of the USA, the island is named after its one famous citizen, Nevin Nollop, supposed creator of the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” So revered are Nollop and his creation that when the letters of his pangram begin falling from the monument in the town square, the island council ban their use in speech and writing.

Perhaps we could imagine living without one letter, ‘z’ maybe, as being not so hard a task, but as the letters fall one after another and the island council become increasingly devoted to the apparently divine will of Nollop, going so far as to banish or execute citizens who use the banned letters, the predicament of Ella Minnow Pea, her friends, and her family becomes far more serious.

The only way to restore the once utopic Nollop to sanity is to create another pangram, shorter than the first. Though by this stage the only letters remaining are ‘l’ ‘m’ ‘n’ ‘o’ ‘p’ which makes their task, Enterprise 32, not only difficult but illegal and deadly.

Told mainly through the letters sent between Ella and her cousin Tassie, we experience the loss of the letters first hand. By the end of the novel one not only needs to read between the lines, but also between the letters! It is a real challenge but that’s what makes this book so fantastic. As readers we’re not watching these characters struggle with the ludicrous laws, we are struggling alongside them.

As a major word geek  Ella Minnow Pea worked on so many levels for me. Dunn forced himself to be exceptionally creative with language, in some chapters he writes phonetically, in others he dredges up, sometimes excruciating, synonyms. By the end of the novel, once you’ve struggled through chapters which use only 4 letters, you begin to feel exhausted but at the same time awed.

The story itself is farcical but told well, the use of letters as the narrative device largely keeps the pace up. There are one or two letters written by some characters such as Ella’s mother, which feel rather cumbersome and out of place but overall it works fantastically.

The farce in Ella Minnow Pea is comparable to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Indeed both books take similar themes, for example utopia Vs. dystopia, or being a good citizen Vs. being a moral person. These are questions still very much relevant today, particularly the plight of Nollop citizens. Do they stay in their homes, where they were born and raised, despite the absurdity of the laws and the threat to their lives? Or should they leave friends and family behind for safety?

Of course there are limitations with Ella Minnow Pea. For readers who love back story, the novel probably won’t satisfy you. The opportunities for exposition are restricted, though those that exist are utilised well and we learn all we need to about the characters but in a very matter of fact way.

After reading Ella Minnow Pea I felt like I’d been let in on a well kept secret. Mark Dunn’s creatively clever novel aught to be considered a modern classic. It is different but relevant and rewardingly and enjoyably challenging all at the same time. Not to mention really satisfying, especially when you realise the pun in the title!

Ella Minnow Pea is written by Mark Dunn was published by Methuen in the UK in 2001.

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3rd year English and History student with a particular interest in creative writing, the theatre and books of all kinds.

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