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A striking aspect of Etta and Otto and Russell and James (January 2015), besides it’s longish title and seemingly impossible premise of an old woman walking alone across Canada, is the author’s economic use of words. A British professor of creative writing, Emma Hooper’s sparse writing style captures the essence and environs of her characters with a modicum of verbiage and a lack of quotation marks, only italicizing James’s dialogue. However, Hooper, seemingly too young to know about the deeper emotions of aging adults, drapes the stories of her four main characters over a concise skeletal compilation of thoughts tersely interspersed with speech and action, fleshing out the narration with hefty chucks of poignant insights and meaty, meaningful moments. Fraught with literary panache, despite its minor flaws, this novel is a weighty literary gem.
Eighty-three-year-old Etta leaves a note for her husband, Otto: “I’m gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there…I’ll try to remember to come back (1).” She begins her 3,200 kilometer trek to the Atlantic Ocean from their Saskatchewan farm carrying a sparsely packed knapsack (with a note reminding herself who she is) and Otto’s rifle, commenting upon deer to Russell as she crosses his fields. As Etta ventures forward into the great beyond, the story flashes back to when she, Otto, and Russell first met – all those many years ago – when Etta and Otto fall in love, Otto marches off to war, and Russell watches over her. This is, as Hooper intimates, a story – no, a journey—of three lifetimes: Etta’s, Otto’s, and Russell’s.
I really enjoyed reading Hooper’s debut novel, especially delighting in her descriptions – or lack thereof –invoking simpler lives, times, and truths. Each character is true-to-life, yet enigmatic in their own individual ways. There were, however, a few vague, confusing spots. In more than one scene “Otto” is transposed with “Etta,” creating reading dissonance. I wondered if this is the author’s intent – to comingle the two souls into one – or an oversight in the editing. And it is not explicitly stated whether Otto served in World War I or II; although WWII is inferred from various references. While somewhat disturbing, this vagueness added to the allegorical timelessness of the novel.
And then there is the talking coyote named James who **SPOILER ALERT** accompanies Etta during her cross-country journey. I had a difficult time with this likeable soul, digesting his humanity. James is a bright, knowledgeable, attentive guardian as they wend their way to the great unknown. But is he a real canine character or an allegorical figment of Etta’s imagination.
While I thoroughly enjoyed the journey of reading Etta and Otto and Russell and James, I was slightly confused and disappointed by the ending, which left me roiled and cold, like the waters Etta sought to see. Yet, this is a first novel that should not be missed. If nothing else, read it for Hooper’s fresh writing style; her lyricisms and insights. For her poignant story of passion, hope, war, hunger, and companionship.
Reviewed by June J. McInerney
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Raised in Alberta, Canada, Emma Hooper brought her love of music and literature to the UK, where she received a doctorate in Musico-Literary studies at the University of East-Anglia and currently lectures at Bath Spa University. A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands. She lives in Bath, UK, but goes home to Canada to cross-country ski whenever she can.
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