Wednesday 11 February 2015

Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Etta is eighty-two years old and has never seen the sea. One morning she gets up early and packs her bag, intending to walk to the coast. Her memory is fading and to her husband Otto she writes:
I will try to remember to come back
Etta lives in Saskatchewan. Going westwards, the water is over three thousand kilometres away. She carries her name as a reminder written on a piece of paper and, as she walks, begins stepping back into the past. We learn of her childhood in the city, with her only sister Alma, and Otto's contrasting life in rolling acres of dusty farmland with his fourteen brothers and sisters.

Like Etta's memories, the chapters in Etta and Otto and Russell and James are often in fragments. The spaces around the words are like the wide-open vastness of the Canadian wilderness that Etta must cross to achieve her goal.

As Etta walks, Otto waits at home, working his way through the recipe cards she's left him. He makes cinnamon buns, date squares when he can't sleep and Saskatoon berry pie. He adopts a guinea pig and writes to Etta even though she won't receive his letters.

His school friend Russell, who lives on the neighbouring farm and shares Etta and Otto's past, is less contented to stay at home. He gets in his truck to pursue her, but Etta is avoiding towns as much as possible, not wanting to be found. At least, not by humans. While walking, a coyote joins her. She names him James and they talk:

I thought you weren't real, said Etta. I thought I had made you up.

You could have. 

But I didn't, did I?

Etta, it could be everything, it could be nothing, what you're making up. You shouldn't let that bother you. 

There has recently been a rash of books themed around journeys made on foot, especially by older people. Think of Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and its companion The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy or Jonas Jonasson's The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of a Window and Disappeared. These journeys might be made for self-discovery, fulfillment of a long-held ambition or simply to make a difference, but it was with a little trepidation that I approached Emma Hooper's debut novel, wondering whether it would be an echo of what had gone before.

I needn't have worried, because Hooper's magical prose quickly drew me in. There is a spirituality about her writing - a sense of each word being given its allotted time and space. At times even, there are no words:
no term for a parent without a child, a sister without a sister
and the letters Otto sends back from wartime France are filled with the holes left by a censor's scissors.

The lives of Etta, Otto, Russell and even James are all closely connected. Otto and Russell take it in turns to go to school so that the other can help on the farm. As Otto goes off to fight in the Second World War and Russell is left behind, they begin to take each other's place in Etta's life too. We are all shaped by each other, so where does one person end and another begin? Characters fuse, sharing memories and experiences as if they were their own.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a poignant, wise and funny debutEmma Hooper is a lecturer at Bath Spa University, in creative writing and music and her prose is song-like in its rhythm and timing. She's one of my personal picks at the Bath Literature Festival from Friday 27th February to Sunday 8th March 2015; details of all the events she'll be appearing at can be found here.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is published in the UK by Fig Tree. Thanks to them for my review copy. Images courtesy of Goodreads and Simon and Schuster.

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