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The Strange Letter Z
Debra Daly

The Strange Letter Z
Debra Daly
London 1996

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Nerida and Alexis are beautiful people. Nerida is a model-turned-photographer, Alexis is an academic prodigy of linguistics. Both are trapped by their terrifying brilliance, and by their separate, but equally isolated childhoods in New Zealand. Nerida’s adolescence is blighted by her mother’s suicide and her unequal struggle with her own powerfully sensual nature – "The older you get, the more you are invaded by emotions – you must fight back with facts." Alexis’ father is an embittered Czech philosopher whose favourite game is opening a dictionary at random and quizzing the boy on every entry. His mother speaks to him in a different language every day of the week – for fun. Alexis, desperate to please his parents, feels a failure that at eleven years old, he still can’t understand Wittgenstein.

Brilliant, beautiful and flawed, their meeting in London leads them to believe they have found their ideal "other". But both are plagued intellectually, emotionally, and physically in Alexis’ case, by the past. His brilliant linguistic papers are written in the aftermath of severe migraines, the result of childhood meningitis and epilepsy. These are signalled by the letter Z, which provokes his attacks. And this letter functions as a symbol and catalyst throughout his life. The unfinished treatise on the structural linguist Zeaman, which he can never finish, and other esoteric references litter the narrative. Nerida uses the photographic image to perceive the world, keeping it at a distance and framing it.

Emotionally, they mistakenly embrace their sexual and intellectual compatibility for love – though it is true love filtered through their bodies and minds. Their perfect partnership inevitably fragments due to outside forces. For Alexis, the arrival of his sister Drusilla with her alcoholic friend Constantine forces a crisis. He thought of childhood as "a sentence, Papa, Mama and Drusilla formed the syntax, a structure larger than words, he was the morph". At the same time Alexis’ attacks are becoming crippling and the drugs he takes to control them destroy his intellectual power. Nerida is aware of Drusilla’s power over Alexis but is unable to combat it. The crucible for this tale of the power of intellect or emotion is Mexico where the wilderness, the otherness or the local language make nonsense of their European mindscapes. They cannot conquer the world with intellect: some things, and people, remain unconquered and unknowable. And finally it is Nerida who understands that smallness is human. She doesn’t need the whole world.

The Strange Letter Z is a marvellous debut. Erudite, complex, sympathetic and very, very clever, Debra Daly manages to do what her protagonists can’t, to integrate great intellectual power with emotional truth.

Reviewed by Sara Rance


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