Sunday, December 28, 2014

Mixing Memory and Desire: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper


I have read at least 50 books this year. It is a rare occasion at the book's end to find tears swelling in my eyes. Rarely do characters step out from behind the veil and take you traveling with them for some hundred pages so that at the journey's end you mourn the loss of what was shared.

Emma Hooper's Etta and Otto and Russell and James is that kind of book.

When I first saw the book on NetGalley and read it was about an 83 year old woman on a trek across Canada accompanied by a coyote I was not sure I wanted to read about old people.

For one thing as a pastor's wife I have spent my life, starting in my twenties, mostly around old people. And for another thing I am getting old myself. Later I looked at it again. I read the reviews:
"Hooper’s spare, evocative prose dips in and out of reality and travels between past and present creating what Etta tells Otto is just a long loop. This is a quietly powerful story whose dreamlike quality lingers long after the last page is turned."– Library Journal (starred review)
"Etta and Otto and Russell and James is incredibly moving, beautifully written and luminous with wisdom. It is a book that restores one's faith in life even as it deepens its mystery. Wonderful!"– Chris Cleave, #1 New York Times Bestselling author of Little Bee
"Hooper’s debut is a novel of memory and longing and desires too long denied…To a Cormac McCarthy--like narrative--sans quotation marks, featuring crisp, concise conversations--Hooper adds magical realism…. The book ends with sheer poetry…A masterful near homage to Pilgrim’s Progress: souls redeemed through struggle. " – Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
This time I requested to read it.

I read it in 24 hours. I did not want to stop reading for meals. Or to go to a family Christmas gathering. Of course, I did stop, but some part of me was always tugging at the leash, eager to resume.

Plot? Here is what you need to know: everything is revealed in its time through the action of the story and the memories of the characters. It is about growing up in Saskatchewan during the dry and destitute years; about young people who dream of another life. It is about old people who fulfill long held desires. There is love and heartbreak, war and death. And, the way it is in old age, we do not always know the present from the past, or the imagined from the real. Scenes are impressionistic, insight is oblique, point of view shifts between persons and time.

Brilliant writing shoots forth from the page in stunning recognition: this is true. Hooper is a musician and the rhythm and lyricism of her language is pitch perfect. I can't wait to see what Emma Hooper pens in the future. If this her first novel is such high literature, of what will she be capable over a career?

Read this book.

I thank NetGalley and Simon and Schuster for the e-book in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James
by Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster
Publication January 20, 2015
$26.00
ISBN: 9781476755670