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Fiction Marriage & Divorce

The End of the Alphabet

by (author) C.S. Richardson

Doubleday Canada
Initial publish date
Jan 2008
Marriage & Divorce, Literary, Action & Adventure
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2008
    List Price

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Ambrose Zephyr and his wife Zappora Ashkenazi (“Zipper”) have achieved a happy and balanced life together. The two live contentedly in a narrow London terrace full of books.

That contentment is thrown into turmoil on Ambrose’s fiftieth birthday, when they receive the news that he has contracted a mysterious illness that will most certainly lead to his death within the month. In panicked delirium, from beneath their bed Ambrose withdraws an oxblood suitcase containing the ephemera of his long-suppressed life’s ambition: to travel the world in a pilgrimage through the alphabet, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar.

Scuttling the responsibilities of their respectably successful careers, the two set off on an urgent voyage through real and imagined geographies of place, of history, of art, and of love.

In Amsterdam, they revisit past debates on beauty and art. In Berlin, they weigh the burdens of history. In the glow of the Chartres windows, they explore the stations of life. In Deauville, they fondly recall their youthful love. At “E,” Ambrose adjusts his long-drafted itinerary, crossing out Elba and replacing it with the Eiffel Tower of Zipper’s beloved Paris, the city of their first predestined encounter. While resting in Florence beside the youthfully vital David, they meet a chivalrous old man who shares his insight into enduring romance. It is in Giza that Ambrose begins to falter as he climbs a pyramid, and they miss Haifa thanks to a sandstorm. In Istanbul, they realize that Ambrose can go no further and they must return to their London terrace. But their voyage is not over. The two continue their odyssey, no longer via plane and rail, but now through the power of shared desire and love.

In the tradition of romantic legend and fable, The End of the Alphabet is a lovingly rendered, richly nuanced treatise on the nature of true and enduring love. The story of Ambrose and Zappora is a precious gift, one that illuminates a pathway to the return of balance and joy after unthinkable loss.

About the author


  • Winner, Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Canada & Caribbean)

Contributor Notes

CS RICHARDSON’s first novel, The End of the Alphabet, was an international bestseller, published in fourteen countries and ten languages, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean). His second novel, The Emperor of Paris, was a national bestseller, named a Globe and Mail Best Book of the year, and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. An award-winning book designer, CS Richardson worked in publishing for forty years. He is a multiple recipient of the Alcuin Award, Canada’s highest honour for excellence in book design. He lives and writes in Toronto.

Excerpt: The End of the Alphabet (by (author) C.S. Richardson)

This story is unlikely.

Were it otherwise, or at the least more wished for, it would have begun on a Sunday morning. Early, as that was his best time of the day, and in April, that odd time between a thin winter and a plump spring.

He would have closed the door of his house and stood on his front step, eyeing the predawn sky. He would have given the neighbourhood stray a shove from its perch on his window ledge. The scruffy cat would have hissed and bolted across the narrow road to the park across the way. He would have hissed back, proud he had at last defeated the mangy beast, and set off. As he had every Sunday morning as far back as he could remember.

As he walked up the road, the woman from number eighteen would be retrieving the morning paper from her doorstep. The cool morning would have meant she had remembered to throw on a dressing gown. They would have traded pleasant, awkward good-mornings. He knew her to be the mother of two energetic children whose names he could never recall. She knew he worked in some sort of creative field. After a moment or two of searching for common ground, he would have asked after her children’s artwork. He and his wife had no children of their own.

Farther on, he would have seen the elderly man and his tiny dog that lived at number twelve, about to begin their morning walk around the park. The pair would be waiting to say hello. The man would have tipped his cap and launched directly into an eccentric opinion about something. The tiny dog would have begun yapping at the neighbourhood stray.

He would have worried about disagreeing with the old fellow and causing offence, or starting a discussion on a topic he knew nothing about, or the soundness of his own opinion. He would have forced an agreeing laugh, wished his neighbour a good day and eyed the dog with suspicion.

He would have made his way to Kensington High Street and grumbled about the winter that had passed. He would have wished he had taken his wife to Italy. But that would have been expensive or difficult or meant a bad time at the office. He would have sighed to himself, then smiled as the London sky inched from black to grey to yellow to blue.

He would have turned in at Kensington Gardens, up past the palace and on to Broad Walk. Here he would have been happiest. He would have paused near the Round Pond, looked towards the east and the swans, and squinted in his way to watch a girl of perhaps nine or ten, her hair dark and fine and in need of a trim or a ribbon, reading a book beyond her years. He would have closed his eyes in the warmth of a sun just clearing the budding treetops.

He would have checked his watch, counted his minutes and the day’s schedule in his head, and turned for home. He would have retraced his route down the Walk, past the palace, along the High Street, into his road, past number twelve and number eighteen and the cat now back on the window ledge, and through his front door.

His wife would have begun to stir in her sleep. Five minutes more, she would have mumbled, just loud enough for him to hear as he made her tea. As usual, a tepid cup with too much milk.

Ambrose Zephyr would have been content that it was Sunday and that spring had come again to that part of London and that there was no need to go to the office. He would have read a draft of his wife’s latest magazine column and (as gentle readers are obliged) made one or two enthusiastic comments.

He would have wondered about the days ahead of him and, as was his habit, dreamed of doing something else. And there it would have ended.

But that is not this story.


On or about his fiftieth birthday, Ambrose Zephyr failed his annual medical exam. An illness of inexplicable origin with neither known nor ­foreseeable cure was discovered. It would kill him within the month. Give or take a day.

It was suggested he might want to make arrangements concerning his remaining time.


Ambrose Zephyr lived with his wife – content, quiet, with few extravagances – in a narrow Victorian terrace full of books.

He owned two bespoke suits, one of which he had been married in. The other – a three-piece linen number with lapelled waistcoat – he wore whenever and wherever he travelled: on business, on the underground, on his Sunday walk. A pocket square, discreetly puffed, always in place. He collected French-cuffed shirts as others might collect souvenir spoons or back issues of National Geographic. He rarely wore ties but liked them as challenges in graphic design. His footwear was predominantly Italian, loaferish and bought in the sales on Oxford Street. His watches – of which there were many – were a range of silly colours and eccentric shapes.

When cornered, he claimed to read Joyce, Ford and Conrad. Rereads of Fleming and Wodehouse were a more accurate library. His opinion of Miss Elizabeth Bennett was not favourable (though he liked Mr B and held a wary respect for Darcy). Wuthering Heights, according to Ambrose, was the dullest book ever written.

He had not read a newspaper in some time.

Everything Ambrose Zephyr knew about cuisine he learned from his wife. He was allowed in the kitchen, but under no circumstance was he to touch anything. He was a courageous eater, save Brussels sprouts and clams. His knowledge of wine was vague and best defined as Napa good, Australian better, French better still. Kir royale was his drink of occasion. For an Englishman, he made a poor cup of tea.

He believed women to be quantifiably wiser than men. He was neither a breast nor a leg nor an ass man; hair could be any length, any colour. Ambrose preferred the complete puzzle to a bit here, a piece there.

He stood when someone entered the room. He walked to the street side. Opened his wife’s door first. He could be trusted.

Editorial Reviews


“An alphabet of the language of lovers, a beautiful fable of art and mortality: elegant, wise and humane. I like to think of the happiness this book will bring. I’m sure it will be given as a gift between lovers, and will inspire many journeys—geographical and emotional.” —Chris Cleave, author of Incendiary
“A sad and sweet debut. . . . [Richardson’s] love of the 26 building blocks that prop up the entire English language bleeds into the text. Letters have heft and dash and vigor. They lurk as plot points in antique stores and serve up visual trills in alliteration. They turn the 120 pages of this slight book into a tear-stained goodbye note and a heartfelt love letter.” —Los Angeles Times

“[CS Richardson]’s first book, The End of the Alphabet, is nothing less than gorgeous, a short and intense novel structured around the beautiful cul de sac of the alphabet itself. . . . The story is irresistible. . . . Evocative and unforgettable, it manages to arouse both a longing for travel and a longing for home. . . . It is beautiful. Both inside and out.” —Calgary Herald

“[CS Richardson]’s The End of the Alphabet delivers a gem of a book . . . like a bouquet of roses, beauty in this elegant and witty tale is barbed. . . . This is a very difficult book to put down at bedtime, even when the final page is turned. . . . Richardson not only has an interesting story to tell, but writes with such visual and emotional density that the end of one reading readily becomes the start of another.” —The Globe and Mail
“If ever there was a grand design for a humane, haunting story like this to make it into print, this may be it. . . . There is something so immediately humane and honest about this story that plays out over a scant 140 pages, something so old-fashionedly romantic, the book all but throbs with feeling in your hands.” —Edmonton Journal

“The book is less than 140 pages—the word count is probably that of a novella—but it had the weight of a 400-page novel. The ending resonates long after you’ve reached the last letter.” —

“Richardson enters fictional territory previously marked out by writers no less grand than Tolstoy and Kafka. . . . Gentle, wistful, almost otherworldly. . . . Perhaps . . . the novel itself must not be judged by the canons of literary realism, but by some other standard—that its mood and tone belong more to a fairy tale than a gritty story of some poor devil expiring from some strange disease.” —Toronto Star

“The quality of a fable, exquisite and timeless.” —Chatelaine

“A novel that can be read in a single setting of less than two hours might continue to resonate with readers for weeks, months, even years.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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