Title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Author: Emma Hooper
No. of Pages: 320
Genre: Literary Fiction
Origins: Simon and Schuster
Release Date: 20 January 2015
Bottom Line: Poignant and confusing and bittersweet and lovely
“Otto finds the note left by his wife in the kitchen of their farmhouse in windswept Saskatchewan. Eighty-three-year-old Etta will be walking 3,200 kilometers to see the ocean, but somehow, Otto understands. He took his own journey once before, to fight in a faraway land.
With Etta gone, Otto struggles with his demons of war, while their friend Russell initially pursues the woman he has loved from afar.
And James—well, James you have to meet on the page.
Moving from the hot and dry present of a quiet Canadian farm to a dusty, burnt past of hunger, war, and passion, from trying to remember to trying to forget, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is an astounding literary debut about friendship and love, hope and honor, and the romance of last—great—adventures.”
Thoughts: Etta and Otto and Russell and James is not a novel for skimming. It is a novel that deserves the slow pace and attention of deliberate reading. This is in part because of the language. Superficially very simple, the nuances layered underneath these simple words require some time and effort to uncover. Then there is the simple fact that Etta’s memory is failing her. This throws everything about her narrative into question. It is not that she is an unreliable narrator; in fact, she is trying desperately to maintain her memory and go back to her husband. It is the mere fact that no matter how hard she tries, there are times where the real world eludes her. Viewing the world through the eyes of someone who is having difficulties distinguishing past from present and imaginings from reality makes it a difficult narrative to explore at times. This does not diminish from the power of the story; it just makes it the type of novel in which slow and steady reading provides the most satisfaction.
Much like Etta’s failing memory, the novel flits back and forth across the country and across the years. Partly an epistolary novel, letters between Otto and Etta make up a large portion of the narrative. These letters are intimate in a way that can only occur between lovers and help flesh out their relationship without the need for extraneous details. They are also in sharp contrast to the rambling thoughts and trips down memory lane that occur for both Etta and Otto. While these scenes build the adventure and create the backstory that connects Etta and Otto and Russell to each other, their propensity for being almost stream-of-consciousness in nature and the deliberate lack of punctuation marks cloud their coherency. They do, however, provide readers with an excellent idea of what it is like to suffer from memory loss and the confusion it can cause.
When reading Etta and Otto and Russell and James, readers must be able to put aside any tendencies to scoff at unrealistic situations and allow themselves to embrace whatever crazy adventures Etta faces. Some of them are straight-forward; others add in an element of magical realism that is best not examined too thoroughly. One must savor the story but not judge it against the real world; for, once that happens, the charm of Etta’s journey and the poignant discoveries the readers make alongside her disappear. However, when readers are willing to accept the idea of an eighty-three year old woman trekking solo across a country and her equally aged husband allowing her to do so, magic happens.