Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

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Reviewed by Annabel

To those of us living in the UK, it probably seems inconceivable that you can live a whole life without ever seeing the sea. It is this unfulfilled dream that prompts Etta, at the age of eighty-two, to leave her home in Saskatchewan early one morning and start a 2,000 mile walk to the ocean.

In recent years, there have been several novels that feature old folk going on long journeys, most notably The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, a deserved best-seller in the UK. Hooper’s book is not just a Canadian version of this one; it shares a broad theme – no more. Its sweep and quirkiness make it entirely different. It starts:

the letter began, in blue ink.
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
Yours (always),

Unlike Harold Fry, Etta has prepared for her trek. She left Otto a pile of recipe cards. ‘All the things she had always made … So he would know what and how to eat while she was away.’  She took a rifle, and chocolate, and wore her best boots. She headed east – although the journey west would have been shorter. Otto’s immediate reaction is naturally one of shock, but this soon transforms into a sort of pride in her. He will follow her on their globe.

Etta and Otto married over fifty years ago. Otto’s friendship with their neighbour Russell is even longer – they met when they were schoolkids. They meet Etta when she arrives as their new school-teacher, only a few years older than them. When Otto signs up for the war straight from school, he writes to Etta and on his return they start a relationship proper. Russell, who has a twisted leg, remains behind. He too has always loved Etta.

Etta’s, Otto’s and Russell’s stories progress chronologically, in flashback and the present, going from narrator to the others, gradually building up the history of this complex relationship between the three of them.  But what of James?

When Etta woke the next morning there was a coyote licking and licking and licking her feet. Her socks had fallen off and the bleeding had stopped. Hello, said Etta, not sitting up, not wanting to disturb things. Are you helping me or eating me? The coyote looked at her. Amber eyes. Dog’s eyes. Well? said Etta. The coyote went back to licking. Thank you, said Etta. Either way.

The coyote becomes her companion. She calls him James and he talks to her. Some may call this magic realism, others will say that with their instant deep bond, she can read the dog’s mind; the author leaves us to make up our own minds. As a bit of a mad cat lady myself, I’m in the latter camp, but it is a charming friendship between the pair.

Meanwhile Otto and Russell have different ways of dealing with Etta’s absence. Otto’s coping mechanisms are three-fold.  He cooks Etta’s recipes, he starts to make giant papier-mâché animal figures from the large stack of newspapers he has saved and he writes letters to Etta – which remain unposted. His belief in her is touching. Russell now becomes the man of action, driving to try and catch up with her.

It’s a charming story, told in an engaging manner with some high comedy – one scene where Russell stops at a roadside café run by a ten year old girl made me chuckle. It is moving in equal measure; Etta’s memories are changing, not necessarily failing – although you’re never quite sure. Otto, who waits, is still full of faith in her, Russell is more frustrated.  The ambiguities multiply as Etta’s journey goes on and you sense that the ending may not be clear-cut when it comes.

There is a folksy wisdom to this charming tale that gripped me from the beginning. I was slightly surprised to find that I felt the most for Otto in the end, but the three main characters are all sympathetically drawn.

One thing that may annoy some, but didn’t bother me in the slightest, is the author’s decision not to use speech-marks. Quite a lot of the conversations in the book are in the characters’ heads. Spoken words are inset, so it’s clear when someone starts talking, and James, the coyote does communicate in italics.

Hooper, a Canadian, currently lectures on popular music at Bath Spa University. More widely known as a musician, she is a multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter, performing as Waitress for the Bees.  Her tuneful folk songs accompanied by her viola, which are often about dinosaurs, are as quirky as her novel and you can sense this in her prose writing. I loved all the rhythms in the double letters of the main characters’ names, and when they spoke, their speech resembled song lyrics – short phrases, never rambling sentences. This novel was a quirky yet understated pleasure to read – I loved it.

The inspiration for Etta and Otto and Russell and James came from Hooper’s grandparents, and I shall leave you with a film clip that she made talking about them.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books – and would like to visit the middle of Canada and the USA one day.

Emma Hooper, Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Penguin Fig Tree: London, 2015) ISBN: 978-0241003239, 278 pp., hardback.

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