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Review: Missing a letter? Find a different world

"D (A Tale of Two Worlds)" by Michel Faber (Hanover Square)
By Ron Charles Washington Post

In this year of unspeakable loss, it feels uncouth to recommend the story of a loss that is literally unspeakable. But hear me out because Michel Faber’s new novel is a strange delight – particularly if you have a child around to share it with.

There has always been an element of innocence in Faber’s work, though it has often felt overwhelmed by horror and suffering. Now, though, he has made good on his vow to give up writing for adults and published “D (A Tale of Two Worlds),” which gives full voice to his gentle wit and mischievous spirit.

With its buoyant sense of wonder, “D” is a novel graciously indebted to the fantasies of C.S. Lewis, James Thurber and Norton Juster, along with the characters of Charles Dickens. The result is a rare book that mature readers will appreciate on one level while younger readers enjoy on another.

Our heroine is Dhikilo, an observant 13-year-old girl living with her adopted family in an English town. There are other immigrants around, but she’s the only one from Somali- land. Dhikilo knows almost nothing of her war-torn birthplace except that it’s a region and not, as so many kindly white people keep telling her, a mispronunciation of Somalia.

She bears this and other racial microaggressions politely, but she’s determined to learn more about her origins, which is Faber’s subtle way of blending an ancient quest tale with contemporary concerns.

Although her research on the internet sheds little light, it does feed her love for language. She’s struck, for instance, by the Somali word “saxansaxo,” which denotes “the smell and the coolness carried on the wind from a place where it’s raining to a place where it isn’t.”

“How could one little word mean something so marvelous?” she wonders. “It made you realize the language wasn’t just a code to communicate with: it was magic.”

With that, the spell is cast over Dhikilo – and us. On an ordinary Monday morning, Dhikilo notices a misspelled headline in the weekly paper: “Goobye Cars, Hello Skateboars.” Stranger still is her mother’s reaction to the story: “The council has ecie to emolish the Leisure Centre.”

No one seems to notice these weird elisions except Dhikilo. “Everything about the way they were talking was 100 per cent normal and relaxed,” Faber writes, “and pronounced just as it should be, apart from the missing Ds.”

As the situation in town grows more D-less, the more fun we have reading along. Suddenly, all the street signs have been amended. Music class can’t sing the Hallelujah chorus without the D note. “With twenty-six letters in the alphabet, you’d think that losing one of them wouldn’t be so bad,” Faber writes, “but it was very bad indeed.”

Older readers will remember Thurber’s clever fairy tale “The Wonderful O” (1957), about an island on which the circular letter is forbidden by a pirate. (Penguin Classics offers an edition with the original illustrations by Marc Simont.) Mark Dunn used a similar conceit in 2002 for a political allegory called “Ella Minnow Pea,” which imagined the letters of the alphabet falling away one by one.

But Faber’s tale of alpha-elision follows its own course. Because Dhikilo can see this problem, she’s enlisted by a quirky old professor to solve it. “You may get yourself killed,” he tells her. “But you’ve always struck me as a sensible and resourceful girl.” The fate of the language depends upon it.

Like Dorothy traveling through Oz, Dhikilo finds herself crossing into a fantastical world with a dog, though not a little one. The directions are vague and her supplies limited – she has only a little chocolate and those energy bars “that look like birdseed glued together with baked sugar.”

But somehow she must find the missing D’s and stop whatever or whoever is making them vanish. It’s an odyssey through a treacherous land where she’ll encounter kindly felines and mean trolls and even evil cheese. (Parents: Those felines have suffered a gruesome punishment that some children might find upsetting.)

Faber demonstrates a particular fondness for the comedy of bureaucracy. “D” is packed with Dickensian absurdity involving procedures, forms and regulations. And Dhikilo’s night in a labyrinthine hotel of increasingly aggressive notes from the Management is a classic scene.

But what’s most charming about “D” is Faber’s narration, his slightly arch voice with a hint of A.A. Milne. This is a narrator whose tone constantly affirms the expectation of decency and regards even the most dire circumstances with ironical good humor.

Some readers will struggle to divine an allegorical meaning in “D.” Dhikilo laments, “They’re burning the language, and they’re not even ashamed,” which suggests we’ve entered an Orwellian fairy tale. And a vain tyrant destroying his realm with incompetence carries the satirical whiff of a certain Very Stable Genius. But younger readers, those folks most recently introduced to the miracle of words, will simply enjoy this story for its sprightly adventure and effervescent comedy.

On the very last page, someone asks Dhikilo, “Might you come and visit again?” We can only hope that Faber is thinking, “Efinitely.”

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