Novel born of the alphabet
Novel born of the alphabet

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the word "text" comes from the Latin "texere", meaning "to weave". And that written texts can, like textiles, be sewn together to form patchwork quilts. Or revert back to letter sequences for tighter organisation. The radio alphabet, for example.

"I'd been in a writing group and one of the women was writing a book based on the idea of a patchwork quilt," Perth author Annabel Smith says. "And I was interested in that as a structural idea."

Some years later Smith was making notes for what would become her second novel when the brother of her then-boyfriend taught her the radio operator's, or phonetic, alphabet.

"I had always wanted to learn it and became obsessed," Smith says. "Then it struck me that I could structure my novel around it."

At that point Smith, whose first novel A New Map of the Universe was shortlisted for the WA Premier's Book Awards, had barely written a few pages. So the alphabet ended up guiding the story.

"I would just say 'Alpha - what could a chapter about Alpha be'," she says. "I got to Delta and thought, 'Well, that could either be about a geographical formation or about Anais Nin's book The Delta of Venus. It actually became a chapter about teen sexuality. And that's how the story evolved - letter by letter." And that's how Smith's novel, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, was born.

We're sitting in a cafe inside Fremantle's WA Maritime Museum, a vast blue sky stretching above the Indian Ocean only metres away. An appropriate meeting place, not least because of Smith's use of the Alpha-Zulu alphabet. Not only is she a migrant herself, having moved from Britain with her family to Australia when she was 15; the identical twins in her novel, William (Whisky) and Charlie move to Australia from the UK when they are 15 - though by sea, not by air.

"I was born in a very nondescript part of Bedfordshire," Smith laughs. "And in a way the migration story in the novel comes from my own experience - the sense that Charlie doesn't quite get it when he comes here. That Australians speak the same language, and yet they don't."

She also drew on the experiences of her partner, an architect who hails from Lancashire.

"The chapter where the family travel across on the ship - that's his family's story," Smith says. "One day I just sat down with a pen and paper and said 'Tell me everything you remember about the ship'."

Whisky is in a coma. He and Charlie haven't been what you might call best mates for some time. But suddenly he realises what he might lose, and as we travel with Charlie back to the beginning and then through the twins' respective complicated lives we learn a lot of home truths about our own complicated but beautiful lives.

"He made a half-hearted attempt to look for Whisky then, but when he found him Whisky seemed even less interested in playing at brothers than Charlie was," writes Smith in the book. The brothers are at a party. But like so much in this wonderful novel that productively strains against the nodes that form its structure but not its essence, Smith is really talking about the party of life where it rains more often than not.

As it turns out, the fractious fraternal relationship at the heart of Whisky Charlie Delta also has its roots in relationships within Smith's own family, rendering it more, not less, universal.

At the time Smith and her family decided to move to Australia, her father was in business with his brother. Upon hearing the news the latter was "devastated" and for 10 years would not speak to his brother. "As a teenager it was something that puzzled me - how could something like that really happen," Smith says.

When the brothers finally reconciled, her father told Smith what a powerful thing it was to reconnect. "So (with this book) subconsciously there was some part of me that wanted to understand how two people that love each other and grow up together and share everything suddenly don't talk for a decade."

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Follow Us

More from The West