Author Chris Cleave deems Emma Hooper’s debut novel ‘incredibly moving, beautifully funny, [and] luminous with wisdom’. Etta and Otto and Russell and James deals with both the present, spent on a ‘too-quiet-for-too-long Canadian farm’, and the past of its characters, filled with ‘hunger, war, passion and hope’.
Hooper’s protagonist, Etta Gloria Kinnick, is an eighty two-year-old woman whose greatest wish is to see the sea. She gets up very early one morning, so as not to alarm her husband, and ‘takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots, and begins walking the 2,000 miles to water’. Her husband Otto waits patiently at home for her return: ‘Underneath the letter [which she leaves him to explain] she had left a pile of recipe cards. All the things she had always made. Also in blue ink. So he would know what and how to eat while she was away’. Throughout Etta’s journey, she corresponds with Otto via letters, and he writes to her too. As unlikely as this premise is within the real world, it is rather endearing.
Hooper has a really nice and rather contemporary prose style, which gives the book a lovely pace in its first few chapters. She has woven in the story of Russell, one of Otto’s childhood friends, and a neighbour of the couple, and that of James, a coyote who decides to tag along on Etta’s journey. Memories are interspersed with those things which happen in the present day, and we learn about each of the protagonists in consequence. This technique works relatively well, as does the way in which Hooper has used a mixture of long and short sentences in order to build her scenes and create a sense of atmosphere. The sense of place, and of the enormous journey which Etta is undertaking, is sharp; on taking a rest on the first evening of her expedition, Hooper describes the following: ‘She breathed shallow. In sleep, her legs had burrowed down in the sand, and much of her torso too. The weight against her was comforting. She pulled at her thoughts, tried to stretch open her mind, still with her eyes closed. Sand. The feeling of sand. Tiredness in her hips. Night. Voices. Light wind. A sister with black hair. A house in the city. Writing paper. Paper.’
Hooper’s more original descriptions work well too, whether she is describing her characters: ‘his right leg forever twisted like liquorice lace’, or her scenes: ‘Some months earlier, she [Etta] had started getting pulled into Otto’s dreams instead of her own at night. She would be pulled right in and would be there, in water, in trousers, standing on a grey beach with blood lapping up to her knees and men all around yelling and she would be there, sometimes with a spoon or a towel in her hand and sometimes with nothing’.
Many themes are at play within the novel – self-discovery, grief, loneliness, the notion of family, love and loyalty perhaps the most paramount amongst them. The downsides of Etta and Otto and Russell and James are the dialogue, which often feels flat and repetitive, and the lack of consistency with regard to pace throughout. After the first quarter of the novel, my interest within the story dropped somewhat as it became bogged down in more mundane details, and I felt as though it did not really get back up to the same level at which it began. The elements of magical realism which can be found here and there add a dreamlike feel to the whole, but they do not always seem to work as well as they should.