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Alphabet

by Kathy Page
261 pages,
ISBN: 029760788X


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Brief Reviews. Non-Fiction
by R. Gray Mitchem

As Kathy Page in her astute novel, Alphabet, has demonstrated, one emotionally cleft young man, examined or deconstructed, yields up his pathetic yet hopeful passage through the penal system as an example of our undying belief that corrupted individuals can be not only punished but simultaneously redeemed. It is a painful but uplifting saga. The novel starts with the murder of one innocent teenaged girl¨a spiritual, intellectual vessel of limitless potential¨whose misfortune it is to be present for her boyfriend's psychotic, torqued moment during their one and only sexual encounter. Her life ends, his begins, and one gathers that for the one taken the other must be reconstituted in order to counter the grievous futility of such a loss. And, unlike the unfortunate, innocent Aksyonof in Tolstoy's short story, "God Sees the Truth, but Waits", our guilty protagonist, after his grinding initiation into penal servitude, begins to develop genuine mettle in facing his guilt.
The novel is, though not expressly so, a testament to the bureaucratic buoyancy given to Judeo-Christian notions of the soul as the irreducible ylem that cannot be consigned to its final form without being worked on¨its good is our good. So, how does a murderer withstand the humiliation of 'correction'? He begins by accounting for the nefarious deed, and that might be through the totemic effect of a single, willfully uttered word graven in the flesh, expressing defiance or self-loathing. What, then, if the word is transmutable into a syntax of self-revelation? A female prison administrator tells the young man he is beginning to demonstrate Courage. In response he has another inmate tattoo those very letters across his chest¨indeed the flesh made word¨and thus he devises an "Alphabet" of and for self-reflection.
The protagonist, through a few carefully composed essays in (monitored) inter-gender communication goes through a period of maturation, is relocated to a clinical setting within the system, where he grows, retrenches, falls from grace, and is returned to the cell block. There he is brutalised by other inmates either because of his hard-won integrity or in spite of it. His penultimate destination is the hospital¨still a part of the larger British state-run system¨where he and a soon-too-be transgendered man become friends.
Tentative at first, the friendship continues through exchanges of letters. One is curious to know what might become of this once our protagonist is on the outside. In any event, this friendship credibly amounts to a stage in the process of redemption, driven to begin with by an overarching desire for love. The transgendered correspondent is experienced as both man and woman¨not as neither, as we might expect. And he, in turn, with a gentle philosophical resignation (for he knows his release is far off in the future) seems to consent to be neither one nor the other. What binds these two people is their respect for each other's revealed goodness and the specific incarceration that each has had to endure.
Finally, it appears, that if a society truly believes in the dignity of the individual, and in the ability of each to contribute to the collective good, the reciprocal quality of crime and punishment will, in some measure, deliver him on his due date with compassion. What is required might be attained statistically and behaviourally, but it is the distraction of our own failings and the humility of community that allow for redemption.
Kathy Page's remarkably thorough familiarity with a penal system that strives to balance the punitive hard time with the more merciful aspect of clinical-professional intervention is well combined in this wise and moving venture into both the institution and the mind of a criminal.
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