Week 1 of my Canadian Summer Reading Challenge has ended.
I read Etta and Otto and Russell and James, the debut novel by Emma Hooper. I’ve been wanting to read this book since this interview popped up in my Twitter feed earlier this year, and I finally went out and bought a hardcover copy a few weeks ago. The concept of the novel appealed to me right away, from the moment I read Emma’s interview.
After reading reviews online and watching book vloggers from various parts of the world review it, I knew I had to read this quirky, Canadian novel. Following (guess who) Etta, Otto, Russell, and James, the 305-page book offers the readers a fresh, surreal, almost fantasy experience in watching 82-year-old Etta walk from Saskatchewan to Halifax to see the ocean.
Living in mainland Nova Scotia, I’ve always been a mere hour’s drive away from the nearest beach, basin, or waterfront. My maternal grandparents loved the ocean, which my mother inherited, and sea shells, sea glass, and star fish have always been a part of the interior decor in my grandparents’ house and mine. Even though the ocean has never been a large financial or traditional part of my upbringing, I’ve always had access to the ocean through day trips, stories, and beach-themed bathrooms. Sometimes I forget that not every Canadian has a relationship with the ocean that I’ve grown up with.
Etta’s desire to see the ocean for the first time in her eighty-two years of life is something I’ve never experienced, and never will, and it was lovely and enlightening to follow her desire across the majority of Canada.
Jumping back and forth from past to present, the novel blurs conventional storytelling in a beautiful, complex, confusing way that I thoroughly loved. There’s a lot of blank spaces for the readers to fill in for themselves–or maybe they’re left blank simply because it doesn’t really matter, it doesn’t have to make sense, it just is.
The relationships between the characters are not defined so deeply in the novel so the reader knows exactly who they are and what they’ve gone through together. We’re given tidbits, teasers, and hints to keep us guessing. As Emma said in her interview,
“It’s meant to drift in and out of understanding a little bit, and it’s meant to make the reader not work but be involved so you can’t just sit back and be totally passive and just skim through on a surface level.”
We see little windows into Etta, Otto, and Russell’s past, but we miss the sixty-plus years between the time the war ends and Etta leaves for Halifax. We don’t know what happened between Etta and Otto, Etta and Russell, Russell and Otto. We’re left in the dark like a bystander rather than the intimate experience we as readers are used to having with the characters.
I really loved this novel for its unique format and style, and its habit of twisting cliches so you barely even notice the cliches, and I know I’m going to read it again. This is one of those books where you know you missed something the first (second, third) time around.
*Update: quick note on the end of the novel I forgot to add. I’ve heard mixed things from different people about how they feel about the novel’s end. While there is no obvious conclusion, and it’s left in the hands of the reader, there is a clever link to one of my favourite lines in the book. “It’s a loop, Otto. It’s just a long loop” (pg. 304). The book’s end could be its beginning. You could read it again and again in a long loop. Which I probably will.
So one week down, fourteen(ish) more to go! This week I’ll be reading Great Village by Mary Rose Donnelley.