Etta has never seen the sea. So early one morning the 82 year old leaves her husband, Otto, and their farm in Canada with a note explaining that she is walking 2000 miles to the water and that she will try to remember to come back.
Otto stays at home, baking different recipes that Etta has left for him and spends time making animal sculptures out of papier-mâché, much to close friend (and third side of their love triangle) Russell’s outrage. Russell had always felt attracted to Etta since they first met when Etta was Otto and Russell’s teacher at school.
The novel is told through the memories and letters of Etta and Otto and Russell (the eponymous ‘James’ is a coyote who acts, ironically, as a voice of reason to Etta on her journey). The story gently rocks back and forth, like the waves of the ocean, or like Otto’s hands as he slowly kneads his homemade dough, from past to present as we go between characters across time, changing era and perspective every few pages. This ever-changing viewpoint sometimes makes it difficult to know for sure exactly where we are in the story, and positions us in the same confused realms of Etta’s deteriorating mind, as she suffers from dementia. At one point, nothing is definite and it feels like we’ve completely lost it. Author Emma Hooper deftly casts uncertainty over the validity of the narrative in its entirety.
The story is notably full of movement: Etta’s walking through fields, lakes and trees; the boats that sway as they transport men at war; the chug of departing trains; the repetitive routine of young men fighting; and a fateful tractor ride, all triumphantly shift the rhythm and pace of Hooper’s words respectively. Characters behave strangely, often without motive: we don’t fully know why Otto won’t follow Etta, choosing instead to sweetly write her letters with vague addresses that he knows will come back to him.
It’s an absolutely beautiful read – like a dream. The talking coyote, the thick and dusty air; the love story between the phonetically paired ‘Etta’ and ‘Otto’. Exquisite!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, I make it one of the best books I’ve read in a long time and I know you’ll love it too. Excitingly, this is Emma Hooper’s debut novel. One to watch!
‘Etta and Otto and Russell and James’ was released on 20th January 2015, published by Fig Tree (a Penguin imprint) £12.99.
My copy of ‘Etta and Otto and Russell and James’ was kindly sent (on my request) to me to review.