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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Etta and Otto and Russell and James - Emma Hooper

I am not sure how to describe this book at all, although I think it is an 'either you get it - or you don't. But here goes:

 

This is one of the most gentlest of books that tackles ageing, dreams, lost dreams, life and realities that I have read in a long time.

 

With a letter to start the book there is no doubt what 83 year old Etta is about to do.


Otto,

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),
Etta.

When I started reading, I read it like any other novel waiting for it to grab me. But I got confused because the style of writing breaks the rules. But, there is also something very special about the writing, it feels intimate, so I left it a full day I started right back at the beginning again. I totally got this book from then on.

 

How glad I was to have read it again. Like a non-believer who can’t see fairies, there they were; beautiful words that felt like they were written specially for me to read. Emma Hooper made me feel that I had known these people all my life and I was simply being reminded of their story so that I can pass it on.

 

Otto is one of fifteen children born in a time when farming folks reared large families.

 

Every robust pregnancy running smoothly into a ruddy infant and every infant to a barrel-eared child, lined up between siblings in grey and off-grey nightclothes, some holding babies, some holding hands, leaning into the door to their parent room, listening fixedly to the moaning from within.

 

Doesn't that just give you a complete picture of the circle of life? With so many children they each had their own number which they called out at meal times to ensure everyone was gathered. (See, I am already re-telling the story as if I know them all!)

 

The death of Etta’s only sibling is devastating news that results in a grief that is conveyed so tenderly.


A word carried by Etta’s father up the stairs, oh so carefully. like a baby bird, to Etta’s room. He gave it to her more softly that she’d ever heard him speak. Etta took it and held it in her ears at first and then her head and then, suddenly, and horribly, her heart.

 

This is three friends' own stories: their lives and their final journey’s. How much is in their own failing minds we are never quite sure but there is such a tenderness in the telling that I was enthralled by it.

 

When Etta decides to go to the sea she simply walks out of the house and doesn’t stop, along the way a coyote who she names James joins her:


That night James did not eat Etta, just slept a little bit away from her feet. The next morning he ate a gopher while Etta ate mayonnaise on crackers.

 

This strange couple journey onward with Etta’s ageing mental fragility constantly slipping. She holds conversations with James; weird you might say, but he is so important to Etta on her journey.

 

At home, Otto patiently awaits her return and learns how to live on his own, finding his own way to express himself. Then Russell who has also loved Etta sets out to find her.

Throughout the story we learn the history of the three of them, growing up, Otto at war holed up in small towns and Russell learning farming. There is such a beautiful line from one of Otto’s letters to Etta, it is such a simple observation:


The jeeps are parked, so when we’re all inside you’d never know we were here. We wear this town as camouflage.
We are here, they say to hold the town. I like the idea of that. Like a kite.

 

It has one of those endings that leaves an empty space followed by a huge question mark. Of course we know that they are old and died, but are left to surmise details.

 

In my imagined ending all is content and peaceful and I think I am probably right....
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Many thanks for an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley.