Almost eight-year-old Elsa has the kind of grandma that most people can only dream of. She’s a superhero. Except she’s not actually a superhero. But when you are almost eight and have no friends, and you spend most of your life wanting to be in the imaginary land-of-almost-awake, an old woman who throws globes at your head teacher and helps you break into zoos is going to seem like something extraordinary. And that’s just what she is. Having spent most of her life as an orphan-rescuing-surgeon responding to the world’s biggest tragedies, Elsa’s grandmother now concentrates on Elsa. That is until, early in the novel, she succumbs to cancer.
This leaves Elsa in a precarious position. Without her grandma she is now a child of divorce with a mother who works full time and is expecting a baby. On top of that, she lives in a block of flats full of misfits such as The Monster, The Drunk, the Boy with the Syndrome, and the nagging busybody Britt-Marie. Her desire to escape into the fairy-tale esque world that she visited each night with her grandma increases.
But then she finds a letter. It’s from her grandma and is addressed to the mysterious first floor resident known only as The Monster. As well as revealing previously unknown secrets about her grandma and her family in general, this letter begins a magical quest which will challenge Elsa to the same degree that it unites her with the family and friends around her.
Mixing reality with fairy tale in a way that only a narrative from the perspective of a seven-year-old could, Backman’s second novel walks a tightrope between tenderness and sentimentality on almost every page. But he just about manages to stay upright. The humour, intrigue, and darker elements stop the book from ever becoming to cutesy and result in an entertaining read.
And that is largely down to Elsa – a seven-year-old that is wise beyond her years, but still shows the anxieties, imagination, and lack of self-awareness that only the young can get away with. She’s a great character, and one that you will fight for throughout the novel.
Any Cop?: You’ll read a lot of more ‘serious’ and ‘important’ novels this year, I’m sure. But if you want a fun and enjoyable read that is also a touching and believable exploration of a seven-year-old’s mind, you won’t find many better. Save it for when you’re after a good dose of escapism.