Review: Emma Hooper's Etto and Otto and Russell and James
Emma Hooper is a multi-talented lady. The Canadian, based in Bath in the UK, is an award-winning musician, an academic, a poet, a short story writer and now a novelist.
While most first novels fly under the radar, Hooper's debut Etto and Otto and Russell and James is turning up on a lot of 'Books you Must Read in 2015' lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
The story, loosely based on the lives of Hooper's grandparents, opens with 82-year-old Etta leaving the small dusty town in the Prairie province of Saskatchewan where she has lived all her life. She writes her husband Otto a note: "I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. I will try to remember to come back."
So she begins to walk east towards the ocean, over 2,000 miles away.
With her, she brings food, clothes, a map, a fish skull, a rifle and a piece of paper. On it is written: "You: Etta Gloria Kinnick of Deerdale Farm, 83 years old in August."
On the face of it, the story is of Etta's quiet quest across Canada but it is about the journeys, physical and internal, real and imagined, through memory and present, all the eponymous characters undertake.
Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass: "Not I nor anyone else can travel that road for you" and this rings true for Hooper's creations. Each character in this beautiful, quirky tale has their own big adventure and each one must travel the road alone.
Otto grew up one of 14 siblings. At 19, he went to war, spending years in close proximity to his fellow soldiers. When he returned, he married Etta and has lived the last 60 years of his life with her on their farm.
For the first time, he is alone and must learn to be by himself and fill his days. He struggles with his new situation but discovers a talent in himself he never knew existed.
Russell is the couple's lifelong friend, a brother of sorts of Otto's and has been quietly in love with Etta all his life. Shocked that Otto won't search for his wife, he sets off to find her and bring her home. But while he starts off on Etta's path, it is not one he ends up following.
Hooper seamlessly interweaves her story through the characters' pasts and presents, how they met, how they love and how they act when they are apart. The wise, tender story flows easily, infused with a gentle magical realism - the fourth character, James, is a talking coyote.
While there is darkness - war, dementia, miscarriage, early death - the theme of hope, that wonderful idea that it is never too late to find something new in yourself, always shines through.
The novel does demand insight from the reader; a lot is left unsaid and Hooper does not draw conclusions.
There is an enchanting sense of vagueness, and more and more becomes uncertain as it drifts onwards to an ending which can be interpreted in a number of different ways.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is an inspirational, captivating read, deserving of its place on those must-read lists.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Fig Tree, hdbk, 288pp, £12.99
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350