Etta and Otto and Russell and James
I'm not sure how I'm meant to begin reviewing a book that made me experience the full spectrum of human emotions, including a few that I'm pretty certain I'd not come across before. You know that bit in Shrek where Donkey is talking about being an onion and how people have layers? Well, this novel is like that. Each passing page is a new layer which reveals tiny morsels of the story and the lives of its inhabitants. Every one of those morsels catches you and sucks you right in until you reach the end - the core - and you've just got to give in to the inevitability of tears (it's an onion, remember). I think what I'm trying to say in a shockingly roundabout way is that this is a novel to succumb to. Don't think, just read and fall in love.
One morning eighty-odd year old Etta wakes up and decides to walk the 2,000 miles from her home to the sea. She writes her husband a note, packs her rifle, best walking boots and some food, and leaves.
'I've gone. I've never seen the water, so I've gone there. I will try to remember to come back.'
Meanwhile Etta's husband Otto waits patiently at home making animals out of paper and twine and writing letters he's not certain Etta will ever be able to read. Then there is Russell who lives on the farm next door, waiting to set eyes on a deer and harbouring his own memories and feelings for Etta. Considering that this is a novel about a journey, there is a huge focus on waiting. I think the contrast between moving forward (and simultaneously backward) and waiting patiently is what makes the novel so emotionally raw - we're balancing on a knife edge with each and every character, even those with a fleeting role.
The novel is episodic and sometimes jumpy, but I think that perfectly reflects Etta's state of mind and her struggle to hold on to her identity as her memory fails her. It's a novel about the power of memory and about how our relationships can influence how we think or feel, and even how, and what, we remember.
'Bryony, said Etta, who was I this morning?
You were you, of course, Etta.
But was I?
I'm not sure.
I'm not sure either.'
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a lovely novel with moments of pure lyricism. It has one of the most ambiguous endings that I've read in a while which enables each individual reader to make their own interpretations. I know how I interpret it, but I would never share my thoughts because I think it is something you have to discover yourself. As with all good novels there is a surface and a subtext - I think it is important here not to miss the subtext because that is where its power lies (remember what I said about onions?).
Did I mention that it is beautiful?
You will like this novel if you enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.
Buy Etta and Otto and Russell and James from the Book Depository here.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.