While we’re on the subject: the 73rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is Diane Brown’s review of Debra Daley’s debut novel The Strange Letter Z, which featured in the previous post. It too is from the November 1995 issue:
I have to confess to coming to The Strange Letter Z with an attitude. I had already read an extract in which the characters and the writing seemed so clever, so self-assured and glamorous that I was sure I would not like them or the book However, the opening chapters disarmed me. Not that the main characters, Nerida and Alexis ceased being clever, but Daley convinces that these are likable people worth knowing.
Nerida stands naked “on the wooden bed-end, her arms outstretched for balance like a winged Victory”. She is sensuous, restless and out of place in a Northland farmhouse. She has so much information in her brain she feels about to burst. Relief comes from masturbating while musing over the letter Z. It’s a discoveiy of self. A tragedy causes Nerida to move to London. She is beautiful enough to become a model.
Alexis is a precocious child, schooled in word-play by his Czech linguist father. He is melancholic and “too naturally clever”. His parents are suffocating: “He had been brought up to achieve greatness, but deep in his heart there lurked a kind of boredom. A laziness. He felt his mind to be both full and vacant.”
Alexis experiences his first orgasm when he has an epileptic fit; later fits are sparked off by the letter Z. He leaves for Europe to pursue an academic career as a linguist; his career is enhanced by the brilliant automatic writing he falls into after a fit.
By this time Nerida and Alexis meet in Paris, Nerida has become a photographer but she is still fixated by the letter Z in a way familiar to all New Zealanders living abroad. Reading a complex passage on Samuel Zeugen, an anthropologist and poet, has a profound effect on Nerida. She leaps on Alexis in a taxi and thus their explosive affair begins.
Much of this novel is centred on the work of linguists and anthropologists. It is intellectually rigorous in places and these passages may alienate some readers. Daley not only plays with ideas but also with form in a postmodern way, in the sometimes shifting voices and sudden digressions from one subject to another. Anticipating possible objections, she says, “the words that leapt off the page for any sentient person to understand, any gas station attendant or student or sales assistant or model if they were not watching television, were words of desire and frustration”. She demands and rewards attention with elegant sentences that carry the writing forward.
For Nerida and Alexis, a visit to Mexico brings a confrontation with the “language of catastrophe” and a painful end to their relationship. They have to relinquish vanity and learn to settle for “small finite things”, “giving up the storm-tossed life” before they can overcome desolation of the soul.
Alexis’ father says, “The world is full of intelligent, perceptive people who have no idea how properly to employ their talents.” This does not apply to Daley. The Strange Letter Z is beautifully and thoughtfully written and offers a positive vision of the strange nature of love.