A superbly unconventional novel

Etta & Otto img

If you are going to Canada for your holiday this year, this would be a fantastic read. I hope the background I’ve given in the opening paragraphs of my review below doesn’t give away too much information!

Etta and Otto are an elderly married couple. Russell is their friend and neighbour. The three have known each other all their lives. They are all in their twilight years, but there is a sense that they each have something left to do. The narrative is non-linear and as the book progresses Hooper fills in the details of their early lives, how they all met, the circumstances of their childhood and upbringing, and how this human triangle evolved.

We learn that Otto and Russell lived on neighbouring farms, Otto one of a large number of children in a dirt-poor rural family, Russell the nephew of a childless couple who had come to live with his aunt and uncle after his mother left in circumstances that are not fully explained. Etta comes from a more middle-class background, but her early life is devastated by the loss of her beloved sister Alma, who was sent to a convent far away on the coast after becoming pregnant, but who dies in or after childbirth from blood poisoning (there is no word on the child so we must presume it died too).

Etta goes to teacher training college and seizes an opportunity to take a job at a rural school (where the existing teacher had been forced to leave after losing his voice). Here she meets the two boys who are near contemporaries of hers. It is sometime in the late 1930s/early 1940s and, presently, Otto volunteers to join the war and is sent to Europe. Russell remains behind; he was left with a disability after sustaining a childhood injury to his leg, playing on a tractor with Otto and his siblings.

Etta and Otto begin a correspondence and their relationship develops from teacher/pupil to lovers, manifested in a beautiful scene when Otto returns home briefly on leave. But Etta’s relationship with Russell is also developing as he is her main friend and companion at home. We know from the outset that Etta and Otto marry, but the twists and turns of this triangular relationship, so central to the plot of the book, are no less compelling. Hooper gradually answers our questions about the events of the present as she shows us the events of the past.

The novel is set in Saskatchewan in the vast rural geographical centre of Canada and the sense of place, of its isolation, is profound. Images of dryness and dust permeate the entire novel; dust coats the homes and belongings of people here, it coats the livestock and it seems to be responsible for Etta’s predecessor at the school losing his voice. Etta has a deep unfulfilled longing to see the sea; not only, I think, because she is still searching for closure after the premature death of her beloved sister, but also because she has a thirst that she must finally quench, because, as she says to James, “I don’t have many minutes left”. The eponymous James, by the way, is a talking coyote she befriends en route.

James the talking coyote is not the only element of this novel where the reader is required to suspend their disbelief – there is the question of whether an 83 year-old woman could survive the physical challenges she does! I am usually quite a literal person, but I found myself going completely with all the things I was invited to take on trust, so don’t let that put you off. In many ways, the magical elements are necessary to lift the reader above the very visceral human experiences of poverty, death, loss, war and pain that are part of the story of these four characters.

It is ultimately a beautiful novel, wonderfully written, that I would highly recommend.

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