‘A very promising debut’ – Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

eorjReaders familiar with Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry may decide, on first glance, to steer clear of Emma Hooper’s debut. Despite transferring the action from England to Canada, and switching over the pilgrim from an elderly man to an even more elderly lady, there are, it has to be said, certain similarities between the two books. At least on first glance.

Etta is an 83 year old lady whose memory is failing. We are first introduced to her via a letter she leaves her husband, Otto, which announces that she has decided to go for a walk to see the sea – which just happens to reside some 3,000 miles or so across the country. There are two ways she can go, one of which is only 1,000 miles but Otto senses she’ll go the long way. We defer to his knowledge of her. We also defer to his desire not to crowd her, to let her go her own way, to old the fort until she returns.

Russell, their neighbour, a man who likes to stand in his field and look out for deer (deer that never come), takes issue with Otto’s – in his view, rash – decision to let her go her own way, and follows after. Meanwhile, Etta has made a friend, James, a coyote with a sort of avuncular aspect, who maybe talks to her; or maybe Etta is a little dotty. Either way, the exchanges between Etta and James are quietly affecting, humorous, a writerly device certainly but a nice touch all the same.

Over the course of the book, we are brought up to speed (as you no doubt expect) with Etta and Otto and Russell’s childhood and adolescence, how they all come to be the people they are; there is a love story, a correspondence, a war, all conveyed in Hooper’s lyrical, sweetly poetic voice, divorced of historical detail (as if she feels we know enough by now to know what she’s talking about). In some senses, there are similarities also with a book like How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairytales – but Hooper is better. There is more going on here than just whimsy.

Hooper warrants another feather in her cap for the way in which she chooses to resolve the book. It would be churlish of us to reveal how the book ends, and so we won’t, we will merely nod in Hooper’s direction with gratitude and respect for circumventing more familiar forms of resolution. And mention that Hooper is the kind of writer, like say Dan Rhodes, who is unafraid to take her story where it needs to go rather than where she suspects her readers may like it to go.

All told, it’s a pleasant read – which may put off as many readers as it attracts – and it won’t take you long to get from one side to the other. But it’s a journey we were glad to take and we think it’s a journey a number of readers will also enjoy. Hooper’s book quickly detours from the Harold Fry route and more quickly comes to resemble Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of TS Spivet, in that it’s light, musical, funny, slightly magical and promising, too (in the sense that Hooper has crafted a book that puts her on our collective radar, such that we’ll almost certainly read whatever she tries her hand at next).

Any Cop?: A very promising debut.


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