Alphabet is a twice-found book.
About 10 years after Kathy Page began work on the novel and then packed it away, she rediscovered her notes while moving from the U.K. to an island off the coast of British Columbia in 2001. The notes were begun after her assignment as writer-in-residence at an English men’s prison. Once in Canada, Page began writing in earnest in a cabin beside her house. The book took shape and was published in the U.K. and Canada in 2005, earning a nomination for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Now, nearly 10 years later, Alphabet is finding its way to American readers with its first U.S. publication.
This book has been worth the wait.
Set in Thatcher-era England when, according to Page, “the inhuman, crushing environment was a parallel” to prison, the novel portrays a man’s journey through the system and within the labyrinth of his own problems. Simon Austen is illiterate, accustomed to the proscribed regulations and routines of incarceration, and seemingly indifferent to the undercurrent of violence that flares periodically inside. And yet his characterization is oddly sympathetic, given that he brutally murdered a young woman without any seeming sense of regret.
The reader is drawn to his innate intelligence, his sense of humor, his delight in learning how to read and write to fill the time of his life sentence. Page sees the dichotomy of the dark and light side of her character as critical to the story. “I accept that both are true—the terrible side to these men, but the damaged, human facet also,” she says. This encompasses the question at the heart of this fine novel: Can a man, a murderer, insensitive to the violence around him, become functional, sympathetic, create and sustain relationships on a personal level? “Simon strikes me with sympathy and horror, sympathy and suspicion. These are the emotions I felt working with men like Simon in prison,” says Page. “It is his ‘bothness.’ ”
There are layers and layers of sensibility and themes in this novel. The duality of life is delivered by Page by this “bothness,” as she terms it—in the good intention/poor delivery by the system psychiatrists, in the confining incarceration and the liberating freedom of being able to read and write, in the tour de force character Vic/Charlotte. “Charlotte arrived because of a story I read about a transgender prisoner and I knew this kind of character must be in the story. She surprised me,” Page says.
Most of the book is surprising, including the central image of Simon’s inked body. Tattooing is a staple of prison culture, of course, performed by other inmates with unsanitary tools. But Simon’s tattoos are of words like “ARROGANT, WASTE OF SPACE, BASTARD…MURDERER…A THREAT TO WOMEN, BRUTAL and COLD,” words that lead Simon to the conclusion that “…this is what I am.” Simon’s tattoos are a record of his life, recording the names and words that others have called him over time.
Again the “bothness”—writing on the body of a man who cannot read, which serves as an autobiography of his life that’s written instead by others. Page sees the words in the tattoos as “accurate in some way, all negative, until we reach the turning point of ‘COURAGEOUS.’ That progression of language is both liberating and painful, isn’t it?” says Page. “Words get Simon in trouble eventually. Language—and the ability to manipulate it—is both a gift and a curse.”
Writing as a woman, delving into her experience inside the prison system and then using it to craft her magnificent central character has allowed Page “to look at what it’s like to be a man. The institutional aspect is an extreme of a mastering culture. Really, prison is a male, patriarchal institution.” She’s tempted to write in this setting again, contemplating a second novel to explore the progress of her two protagonists. “Vic/Charlotte appears at the right time and it is an encounter about timing. Simon is curious at this point, open. But there is safety in the relationship given the circumstances,” Page says.
Regarding Alphabet, she thinks, “It does touch people. It is good to be brave with a story and follow it where it will go. The way we deal with people who hurt us ([aka] incarceration) is something we should think about. And it is not an easy answer. Certainly it is unpopular with voters.”
After the book was published in the U.K., a psychiatrist who worked in a special unit for violent offenders program, similar to the one Page has placed Simon in for part of the novel, contacted her about visiting while at a conference in Vancouver. “We had a good chat and he felt happy with the prison scenes, the moments when Simon is with his counselors. The system is well intentioned but continually failing people. All systems are a bit imperfect [and] we can never do enough,” Page says.
As for Simon Austen,“he learned the alphabet.” And perhaps much more. That was the impetus for Kathy Page in writing this novel, to find out: “Can men like these move to the other side?”
Pete Warzel is a writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.