Book Review: 'ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES', by Emma Hooper. Sun 08/02/2015
The debut novel by author Emma Hooper, 'Etta and Otto and Russell and James' is as much a human character piece and an exploration of relationships as it is a story about journeys - the physical journey that Etta takes, as well as the meta-physical journey that the main characters have taken up to this point in their lives.
The story centres on the dementia afflicted main character Etta. The one thing she has always wanted to do but never had the chance was to see the ocean. So sets off on an epic journey on foot, heading east to see the water. She is eighty-two years old, so this is definitely the final chance she will ever get. Her husband Otto is left behind with a note stating that she will try to remember to come back. But he accepts that Etta intends to make the journey alone, and rather than follow, he busies himself with cooking and creating paper mâché animals, while all the time writing notes for Etta to read when she returns. Then there's Russell, Otto's neighbour, whose known them both since childhood, and who has always loved Etta. Will he search for Etta even if Otto does not?
Text Structure & Organisation: The author has chosen to incorporate several stylistic writing features into her book. Firstly, she has taken the brave step to omit quotation marks and commas when writing speech. The story is presented in letters and flashback. Additionally, paragraphs and narration blend directly into another, without a break. While these sections of the narrative were intentionally written in this way, jumping from one character to another, and one time period to the next, the danger is that this can make for a confusing read, as can be the lack of punctuation.
Composition & Effect: Once we put aside the highly implausible notion of an eighty-two year old woman attempting a 2000-mile trek across Canada on foot, we find that the story is not so much about the walk, but rather the characters' deep reflections of their lives, past and present. Etta could have been driving a car, or sat in a train seat, the key thing is that the journey will last not just hours or days, but weeks. Hence, ample time to think, to reflect. This also provides the perfect vehicle for the author to flit between past and present, as the characters contemplate the experiences over their lives. And with James, the coyote, the author is able to have Etta converse and share her thoughts during her long, lonely journey. This is of course for the readers benefit since James cannot really talk (a bit like in the film 'Castaway', where Wilson the Volleyball serves as Tom Hanks' character Chuck Noland's personified friend).
However, despite a developed enough narrative up to the point where Otto returns from the war, and he and Etta get together, there is suddenly a huge gap between that point and the present day. This leaves many unanswered questions. What has their lives together been like? What could have been the final push that prompted Etta to leave her life companion behind to make a trek across the country? Yes, she wants to see the ocean, but why can't Otto just come with her? Surely with her faltering memory, he would be of great help. And how did Russell cope once his best friend got together with the girl he loved, especially since he met Etta first and made no secret of the fact to Otto that he liked her?
Finally, the book has a wholly ambiguous ending. Yes, it's not uncommon for authors to leave abstract sections of their stories to the reader's own interpretation. However, after joining the characters on their long journey, we needed a clearer resolution, and more definitive answers to our final questions. What will Etta do once she reaches the sea? Will she return to Otto? What becomes of Russell in his own adventure up north? Or is this it, the end of their lives in the manner and final places the characters have chosen?
In summary, an accomplished first novel. The story moves with a gentle momentum, evoking a resonant sense of beauty and emotion. At times unstated, at times melancholic, but deeply touching, overall.