Ella Minnow Pea — Mark Dunn

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

This fun novel is also a puzzle and a fairly impressive display of linguistic virtuosity. The book is a progressive lipogram – it starts off normally, but its alphabet shrinks as the story goes on. It’s not too hard to write without using Z, but things get more interesting as letters like D, A and even E vanish. We see more and more creative synonyms being used and invented.

This book consists entirely of letters written by the characters to each other. I like the way the sentences are written – the story is set in a land that esteems words and literature above all, and it shows in the way the characters play with language.

With the cute story and clever wordplay, the first half of the book is a delight. A little after this, the author cops out a bit as he has fewer and fewer letters to work with, and it all gets a bit harder to read. The story continues though, as the characters work against the clock to save their country – by solving a word puzzle.

Unfortunately, I spotted the solution to the puzzle quite early on, when a clue is dropped into the text. (Not because I’m brilliant, but just because I had seen it before.) Still, I enjoyed seeing how everything would come out. I’m sure the ending would have much more impact for you if you don’t see the clue.

In the end, it’s a nice allegory about individuality and oppression. The epilogue inspired me to write a computer program to solve the puzzle – watch this space for solutions. (I estimate the program will take 5-10 years to find all solutions, not counting the time it takes me to check the results, so don’t hold your breath.)

After you’ve read this, you might want to tackle its more famous forebear: George Perec’s dense, E-less “La Disparation” (ingeniously translated into English by Gilbert Adair as “A Void“).

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