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
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
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