Ivo, aged just forty, is dying of kidney failure in a care home when nurse Sheila tasks him with making his way through the alphabet, thinking of a story for each part of the body. Each letter inspires a kaleidoscope of different memories, as each body part takes him back to a different moment, feeling or person. As he works his way through the body, starting at Adam’s Apple, we gradually build up a picture of how his life has played out and how he’s ended up in the hospice.
For the most part, Ivo’s memories are dominated by two people – his ex-girlfriend Mia and his best friend Mal. Friends since they were at school, Mal has always been the reckless, outspoken leader of the group. As they get older, Mal and the rest of Ivo’s friends draw him into destructive cycle of drugs and alcohol. When he meets Mia, he gets a taste of what life could be like if he followed a different path. As his memories unfold, we’re thrown right into the middle of the key defining moments of his life to witness as Ivo makes choices that could affect the course of his future forever.
I didn’t find Ivo to be the most sympathetic of characters – and this may be down to the matter of fact and brutally honest writing style of author James Hannah, which exposes his characters’ every flaw. His life is filled with regrets and things that he should have done differently. He deliberately neglects his health, wilfully ignoring the seriousness of his diabetes diagnosis. Mal is undoubtedly a bad influence, but Ivo shows very little restraint, is easily led and refuses to take responsibility for his actions. Even though he loves his Mia, his choices keep pulling him away from her at every turn. In the end, his devil-may-care attitude has devastating and irreversible consequences.
There’s a very real sense that had he listened to what people were telling him and said no to the drink and drugs, he may not be in the hospice, but instead leading a very different life. It makes for quite a hard read. The situation that Ivo is in is gut-wrenchingly sad, and reading his life story felt a bit like watching a car crash in action. Hearing about everything that’s happened makes you want to scream at his younger self for the mistakes he makes along the way.
Ivo’s experiences of a terminal illness in a hospice are also quite hard hitting and handled well. It’s an incredibly sensitive subject, and few books that I’ve read go into so much stark detail on the practicalities of end of life care – from the bedpans to the morphine to the sounds of death that go hand in hand with life in a hospice.
Sheila, the nurse is a fantastic character. I thought that her character and Mia had some really interesting parallels. Both nurses, they each offer Ivo a sense of comfort and security, encouraging him to be better and make the most of his life, even when this life is close to the end. They are the good conscience that balances out the more destructive and self-destructive side of Ivo’s personality.
Ultimately though, it’s up to Ivo to take the initiative. Over the course of the book, as Ivo makes his way from A to Z, he eventually finds a way to come to terms with everything that he’s been through and to potentially build bridges that he thought were long burned.