With Ella Minnow Pea, Dunn has created a truly original work of fiction. The story is a witty comment on the perils of fundamentalism, with hilarious results. His mastery of linguistic experiment is utterly innovative and unreservedly shrewd.
The island, Nollop, named after the great Nevin Nollop, (creator of the pangram: ‘The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’), is thrown into a furore after letters begin to drop one by one from the said phrase proudly displayed under the commemorative statue to Nevin in the town square. The local council, believing this to be a sign of profound significance issue an edict dictating that inhabitants must not use any of the letters that have fallen in any of their discourse or correspondence, as that would clearly contravene what appears to be a kind of divine pronouncement. Hilarity ensues.
The book is entirely comprised of the letters of correspondence to and from the eponymous Ella Minnow Pea (a pun, I believe on the alphabetical order: L, M, N, O, P…) as friends, lovers and family talk about their predicament. Slowly but surely, more and more letters begin to fall and the pool of letters from which to communicate grows ever smaller. Dunn masterfully imparts the dilemmas of Ella and company as they seek to write to each other and very skilfully manages to bring their correspondence to life, despite few, if any standard English words being available towards the end of the book. The prose (if one can call it that!) is extremely inventive and very amusing.
This is a biting satire and illuminates explicitly the farcical nature of such fundamentalist obsessions. There is a somewhat darker element to the tale however, which is slowly revealed through the correspondence. Imparted, at intervals, is the punishment of those who unwittingly contravene the edict. It is a desperate situation and many are formally punished, many leave and most live in perpetual despair. It lambastes the potential idiocy of histrionic proscriptions. I do not wish to detract too much from the humour of the book however, which permeates throughout. In addition, trust, love, friendship, and paranoia all have a part to play. The novel ends with a resolution of sorts but I have no intention of giving too much away!
Ella Minnow Pea is a fantastic achievement. It is not always a simple read given the nature of the prose on offer, but the challenge is a deeply entertaining and rewarding one. I thoroughly recommend this book, especially if you are interested in novels that attempt to play with language or that offer a slightly less conventional mode of expression.
Intelligent, witty and comical…buy it.