Book Review: The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, by Kathleen Alcott

The Dangers of Proximal AlphabetsThe Dangers of Proximal Alphabets
by Kathleen Alcott
Other Press
212 pages

“Ida grew up with Jackson and James—where there was “I” there was a “J.” She can’t recall a time when she didn’t have them around, whether in their early days camping out in the boys’ room decorated with circus scenes or later drinking on rooftops as teenagers. While the world outside saw them as neighbors and friends, to each other the three formed a family unit—two brothers and a sister—not drawn from blood, but drawn from a deep need to fill a void in their single parent households. Theirs was a relationship of communication without speaking, of understanding without judgment, of intimacy without rules and limits.” ~ from the book description on

You know the type of book that you keep thinking about weeks after finishing it?

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets is that type of book.

It is powerfully haunting – not in a creepy-scary-Halloween-way but a leaving-you-pondering-so -many-questions way.

Questions like, how does one accept not being able to be with someone who you love and know completely and who you have spent your entire life (since childhood) loving completely? And, if the answers aren’t what we want and need them to be, how do we get to a point of comfortable acceptance with that?

That’s slightly spoilerish-sounding, I know.  But I’m not giving anything away that you don’t discover early on in this one. Right from the beginning, there’s the sense that Ida and Jackson have a bit of a history together and something went way, way wrong.

I’m jumping ahead, way ahead. That’s what happens with a book like this, when you finish it and your thoughts swirl about. I even let this sit for a week or so to let the effect fade a bit, but when I just skimmed through the pages looking for quotes, the force of it hit me all over again. It is really that good.

The “proximal alphabets” referenced in the title are Ida and Jackson and James, who have been together forever – in some way, shape, or form – since childhood.

“When new friends came over and saw all of it, when they asked how long we’d been together, we had several answers. 

‘Since somewhere between simple addition,’ I’d start, ‘and multiplication tables,’ Jackson would finish.

‘Since before cursive.’

‘Hell, probably since before we knew the alphabet.'” (pg. 159)

Conveniently, Ida and Jackson (and Jackson’s brother James) are neighbors and as the trio grows up, they become much more. Which makes this novel sound predictable, but trust me – it is not.

I can’t say much about this without giving away the plot. There’s sleepwalking and violence that isn’t spoken about. There are hospitalizations. There are children who have bonded over losing parents, and parents who bond over losing spouses. There’s old love and new love and grief that never stops.

This is an intense and in-depth character study by a first time novelist. Kathleen Alcott’s writing is utterly powerful and poetic. It is gripping, foreboding, somber. Right from the beginning, I was immersed in this story, could not put this down. But then this becomes something darker, pain that is palpable through the pages.

Suffice it to say, I really liked this one – except for one issue. I like to be grounded in my reading, to have a sense of place. We never get a sense of where this story actually happens and for most of the novel, you don’t really notice it. Then, about 3/4 of the way through, the narrator (Ida) starts talking in terms of “our city” – so frequently that you’re downloading a mental Mapquest trying to figure out where the hell this could be.

It’s forgiveable with writing like this.

“But even one letter changes a meaning entirely; no matter their proximity, different points of an alphabet refuse to be represented as the same: there’s no guarantee that someone standing at precisely the same longitude and latitude as you will remember the view the same way, no promise that one person’s memory of a moment or a month will parallel yours, retain the same value, shape the years of living that follow.” (pg. 9)

Isn’t that gorgeous?! And so damn true.  

We can live with someone, grow up with them, watch them sleep, be intimate with them – and yet, still not know them. What they experience, how they interpret that experience, is not necessary how that person interprets it. Even if you have known the person forever. Even if you don’t know where you end and the other begins. Even if the lines between family and friend have gotten blurry.

“Years and years and moments upon moments were suddenly negated. Since childhood I’ve spent my heart and words and a catalog of tiny, insignificant moments trying to merge with a bloodstream not mine. The achievements of assimilation many; the failures less often but grander in scale.” (pg. 150)

“I had let myself forget: that honest-to-goodness, forever families are made of blood. That a history doesn’t guarantee a future.” (pg. 151)

Kathleen Alcott guarantees herself a literary future with this fantastic debut.

A note about her name, because I know you’re wondering: I seemed to remember something about a pseudonym, so I turned to trusty Google to find out for sure … which is where I stumbled across this wonderful piece in The Rumpus by Kathleen Alcott (“Names We’re Given, Names We Choose”). Kathleen Alcott is, indeed, the author’s given name and I was confused with another writer. This piece is well worth the read, even if you haven’t read The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, but a necessity if you have. 

The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets gets 4.5 stars of 5 from me. Highly recommended.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Dangers of Proximal Alphabets, by Kathleen Alcott

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