The Happy Burden of Family
A review of Etta and Otto and Russell and James, by Emma Hooper
A friend of mine—one of the most sensitive, intelligent, well-read people I know—once told me that he had never been able to get past the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It begins with Colonel Aureliano Buendía facing a firing squad, remembering the distant morning when his father took him to discover ice. There was something about that opening line—a cuteness about “discovering ice,” perhaps, a contrived quality?—that irritated him so profoundly that he threw the book across the room and never continued. He missed out, of course. Gabriel García Márquez’s panoramic vision and mythical force make his 1967 novel one of the great literary experiences of the 20th century. But the style is not for everybody, and I can imagine Emma Hooper’s debut novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James, with its 83-year-old heroine walking across Canada to discover the ocean with a talking coyote named James, making a dent in my friend’s wall.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James travels artfully through several decades. It interweaves two stories about its eponymous characters: one portrays Etta and Otto coming of age in Saskatchewan in the 1930s and ’40s (and the involvement of Russell, who grew up with Otto, in their wartime romance). The other is about Etta in the present day as she sets out on a pilgrimage from Saskatchewan to Halifax; suffering from an unspecified form of senescence, she has to check her name, address and age written on a piece of paper she keeps in her coat pocket along the way. Gradually, oddly, as she passes through Manitoba and on through Ontario toward Nova Scotia, her quest becomes a popular phenomenon. She is recognized, featured in the newspapers; towns start to greet her with banners; strangers give her objects to carry on her way.
Left alone, her husband Otto tries comically to feed himself using the recipes she has left for him on index cards. At the same time, he is caring for a guinea pig named Oats and makes papier mâché sculptures, which unexpectedly become, like Etta’s journey, a public attraction. Hooper does not delve too far into what Otto might be thinking or feeling. “You wait and you work” was Etta’s motto when she was waiting for him to come back from World War Two, and perhaps now he is doing the same, with a laconic Prairie stoicism. Otto does write to Etta, but he leaves his letters to her stacked up on the kitchen table by the recipe cards because he does not know where to send them. The fragmentary yet moving correspondence gently echoes the way they fell in love by letter when he was away.
Based on stories and memories told by Hooper’s mother about her own parents, the sections from the past bring rural childhood fully to life. The children alternate between school one day and farm chores the next and there are so many of them that they are known by number as well as name. They know not to bother a parent with “child-problems unless there was blood or it involved an animal.” It feels like genuine family history, a real and involving depiction of a world, infused with a deep love for a place. In her acknowledgements, Hooper refers to “the happy burden of history, connectivity, and Saskatchewan.”
In some ways, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a book of moments, a book of memorable, lyrical descriptions, such as a photo in which Etta’s smile “is the biggest thing in the picture.” It is a book of moments, too, in that it moves quickly among characters, in short chapters, with many dingbats and decorations, interspersing letters and recipes and lists and terse dialogues. Sometimes the top of a page is taken up by a short paragraph and the rest left blank. There is space and silence in this novel, which helps capture its setting, and it is not a surprise to learn that Hooper, a Canadian author living in the United Kingdom, is a musician and musicologist. At the end of the novel especially, the characters’ trajectories are arranged into a beautiful echoing pattern.
The problem is that there is not much variety to the texture. When Etta begins working as a teacher in her schoolroom in Gopherlands, her ear becomes more sensitive to the sounds of life there: “Insects calling against or with the wind, the conversation the wooden walls of her room had with the sun, the tread of boots on gravel miles away.” The book is full of such descriptions and events. Her predecessor, for instance, loses his voice and his ability to teach because he kept the schoolroom door open for ten years and breathed in too much dust. Otto’s hair turns white overnight in wartime. This is not quite magic realism, but seems like an effort to render the quirkiness of experience, to depict it as a little askew. The Canada Hooper depicts starts to resemble Amélie’s Paris in the film by that name: gentle, charming, unusual and sometimes wonderful, but airbrushed and precious, too. The wry and dainty style conjures up childhood and romance very well, but not the complications of adulthood. Similarly, Hooper focuses the plot on the dramatic moments of coming of age and the approach of death, but this means she does not really try to depict despair, hate, envy, irritation or other “ugly feelings,” let alone genuine, mature, visceral adult conflict. This makes her significantly different from Márquez, whose inner and outer vision is so vast that it cannot be limited by his style. At more than 300 pages, Etta and Otto and Russell and James becomes a monotonous evasion of life’s complexity.
In interviews Hooper has discussed the other side of this coin, arguing that art need not be equated with seriousness, that we have more than enough tough and painful writing and there has to be a space for our other voices, be they playful or wistful or poignant. And in that she is surely right. But Etta and Otto and Russell and James goes too far in that direction. The underlying point is not that “real” novels have to be all about boredom and bus stops (although Hooper’s style does seem insufficient to such things); it is that this novel’s voice, which starts off so fresh and expansive, is ultimately a narrow one. There are four characters in the title, but as an aesthetic experience, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is univocal, a book with one tone and one vision, although the musical beauty of the last few pages, dealing with loss, connection and acceptance, almost makes you forgive that flaw.