I instinctively hate faux-naive, sweetly-charming books. The ones that try so hard to be cutesy. The Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is my idea of hell. Everyone tells me that The Hundred Year Old Man Who Fell Out Of The Window is delightful. But I just can’t do it. It’s like eating icing sugar with a tablespoon.
But that’s not the end of the story for fairytales and their kin. They can be done with a twist (see The Buried Giant). And when they are, when you aren’t being emotionally manipulated, something rather clever happens. You’re released from the concerns of plausibility – can that actually happen? Suddenly it’s not so relevant. And in the case of Etta, Otto, Russell and James, you can suspend belief about a whole menagerie of life-size papier mache sculptures, whale included, formed out of a few hundred newspapers, or of course a talking coyote.
The book tells the story of 82-year-old Etta, a Canadian wife who wakes up one day and starts walking to the sea, for no real reason other than she hasn’t seen it. She leaves behind her husband Otto and lifelong friend Russell, leaving them to their own and literal or mental odyssies. For Otto, alone at home for the first time in a lifetime, he uncovers the mysteries of domesticity looked after by Etta thus far, and it is a delicate picture of attempts to sleep, attempts to cook, bonding with animals and children.
While Etta walks, Otto crafts and Russell sets out to overcome a lifelong passion – a not particularly eventful present – the book slowly unravels their wartime past, ramping up gradually to greater drama with a sure hand.
But the overall effect of this book is still gentle. It’s a kind book; there is softness for the elderly characters without diminishment. So the overall effect is rather soothing and peaceful, despite wartime atrocities, death. The novel tells the story of long lives, in which those elements are but a part, a part given meaning by the better times.
How can a book that’s about old age, loss, war, death and unrequited love, be edifying? Because it’s also a book about love, friendship, endurance, devotion, and wholly returned love. And either one without the other would be awful. But together – it’s the stuff that life is made of.