ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES, by Emma Hooper

21412221Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9781476755670 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


 At 82 years old Etta gets up one morning, packs some supplies, and heads out on a walking trek to fulfill her unfulfilled dream of seeing the sea, thousands of kilometers away from the Saskatchewan home she shares with her husband Otto. As Etta makes her gradual journey step by step, Otto remains at home reminiscing over the past that he has shared with Etta and their neighbor and long-time friend Russell.
Starting off toward her goal solitary, with no fanfare, Etta begins meeting people who have heard of her walk and lend her some support and companionship as she passes through towns. In the empty Canadian wilderness between she becomes joined by James, a talking coyote. Meanwhile the reader discovers through the reflections of Otto’s and Russell’s past that love and passion exists both between Etta and Otto, and between her and Russell. Amid the tides of war and the expectations of society Etta, Otto, and Russell experience difficulties and tenderness alike.
There is a lot to appreciate in this gentle literary novel. The elderly are not frequently featured or explored in novels in any serious way, and in film/TV they are mostly used for jokes. Having protagonists who are elderly – and one who is female and actively doing something amazing that even the young would be hesitant to attempt – is refreshing. The three human characters of the novel, both at their present old age and in the recollections of their younger years are well fleshed out, and really interesting, beautiful.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is also marked by a distinct lack of conflict. Despite the love triangle featured here, there is nothing disastrous that comes about. The hardships, the longing and the guilt over having given into some of these are viewed in the novel through the long stretch of decades that have passed. In their old age the characters have become much more wise, patient, and forgiving to themselves. Having characters that are largely at peace, non-resentful, and appreciative of the life they have gotten to live even with its notes of sourness makes the novel feel similar, slow and optimistically contemplative despite that sadness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires.
It is Etta’s journey in the present – an attempt to satiate one desire that still remains possible – that creates some of the largest tension, in the worry of whether she will be able to make such an arduous journey without her health failing, physically or mentally. The appearance of James, a talking coyote companion injects the ‘magical realism’ into the novel. If merely a construct of Etta’s mind, is it something beneficial akin to a spirit guide, or a sign of danger? The line between real and fantasy blurs more as the novel reaches its conclusion, leaving an ending that can be interpreted in unique ways depending on the reader.
For readers who don’t mind the oddity and openness this novel contains or a lack of action, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a meditative, emotionally complex novel that invites reflection and discussion. Even accepting the type of novel this is, I’m most uncertain how vital James is as a character, but rereading it with everything in mind with the coyote as an aspect of Etta’s mind may reveal more here than a first read was able to pick out. A good length for a book club, the novel would certainly be an ideal consideration for one.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert

The Memory Garden, by M. Rickert
Publisher: Sourcebook Landmarks
ASIN: B00HUTVFYE
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

There is something magical in stories that focus on the relationship between the young (particularly in the tween and teen years) and the elderly. The traumas and uncertainties in the lives of the teen find a certain solace in the wizened eccentricities of the elder. The elderly have gotten through that period of their lives, but are not like the other adults. They are no longer in their productive prime and they are in another transition stage of our existence, one even more uncertain and potentially traumatic. From the other side, the connection with the vibrancy of youth seems to magically transform the elderly, as they recall with fondness moments of their own history, and perhaps reconsider past events that were more dark and difficult to confront in their earlier years. With “The Memory Garden”, M. Rickert explores these themes of the young connecting with the old through one teenager (Bay) and three older women, her adopted guardian (Nan) and two of Nan’s childhood friends, who Nan hasn’t had contact with in years (Ruthie and Mavis).

I know Mary Rickert’s name from her stories that have appeared in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”, and it is always a joy to see novels appear from authors who I fondly recall from those pages. Like her stories, “The Memory Garden” is written in a delicate, understated manner. Bright, lush, and full of life on the surface, the lives (and deaths) in the novel hide dark matters underneath. Nicely, these serious (and unfortunately very realistic, not fantastic) horrors are included perfectly, neither downplayed nor exploited.

Rickert’s writing is beautiful, full of rich, sense-evocative elements. Most overtly, chapters are built around descriptions (definitions) of particular plants that fit into the theme or events of that given chapter. But throughout the book Rickert is able to fully immerse the reader in this fairy-tale like world with its sights, smells, feelings, and tastes. The highlight of the novel in this respect comes at a high point of the narrative arc as Ruthie concocts a lavish feast for the others built around edible flowers.

Although a couple of secondary characters are not strongly developed and largely fulfill plot-related purposes, the major characters of the novel – Bay and the three elder women – are superbly written, realistic women with personalities each unique and fitting for their ages and experiences. Given the three older ladies, my mind happened to go immediately to “The Golden Girls”. Indeed, each of the women had aspects to their personalities that I could map to Dorothy, Blanche, or Rose. (With Ruthie for instance reminding me often of Rose with here naive nature, to the point where my mind would read “Ruthie” as “Rose”). However, these personalities didn’t line up perfectly, and as the novel progressed, these elderly characters also changed significantly, and the reader learns that they each are far more than they show at first sight. These characters don’t just have secrets that get revealed, Rickert is able to show how they hold more of themselves inside than just some historical events. They keep emotions and personalities hidden due to their experiences, which in turn inform how they are interacting with Bay and the crises she faces.

The plot is more firmly in the ground of fantasy than the more agnostic ‘fantasy realism’, but it should nonetheless be an easy fantasy pill to swallow for general fiction readers. The plot of the novel is slow-moving, as well as the character development. Coupled with its understated style overall, it is not the most ‘engaging’ novel from the onset, requiring patience and lingering appreciation for the quiet beauty of the text as things slowly unfold. With the complex conclusion to it all, I can’t be remotely disappointed with the novel as a whole. Though I look forward to future novels from Rickert, I really hope to keep seeing “M. Rickert” in the table of contents in F&SF in the future still too.

Five Stars out of Five

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy

The Falling Woman, by Pat Murphy
Publisher: Open Road Media
ASIN: B00J84KLNK
273 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
(Original Publ: 1986)
Source: NetGalley

Pat Murphy’s name and writing were only familiar to me from the nonfiction articles that she coauthors for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Always interesting and well written, I was excited for the opportunity to read some of her fiction, this one a Nebula award winner.

Structured as alternating chapters between the points of view of Elizabeth, a respected archeologist leading an expedition studying Mayan ruins, and her estranged daughter Diane, the book explores dichotomies that exist within us all and how these influence both the individual and relationships. A certain conflicting contrast is present throughout “The Falling Woman” at al levels. There is the realism/fantastic divide in its genre: it could arguably be either a fantasy novel, or firmly grounded in reality. Elizabeth is haunted by her past, and by visions of ghosts, such as the Mayans who continue to wander the ruins and talk to her, sharing their own secrets, and their own world views. Unsure if she is crazy, or merely ‘gifted’, Elizabeth, and the reader are forced to consider whether it matters, or whether the two possible extremes can exist comfortably side by side.

The novel also delves into cultural divides, of being Western or Mayan, from the United States or a Mexican, Christian or ‘pagan’. How are these each different, and how might they be surprisingly similar? However most prevalent, the book explores the dichotomies of male/female and mother/daughter. Elizabeth’s eccentricities and uncertain sanity are tied to emotional pains she has dealt with in her life to varying success. She has cut herself and has attempted suicide. These and other darkness led her to separation from her husband, and abandonment of her daughter. Unable to conform to the accepted societal maternal position, and female submissive position, Elizabeth goes out on her own, to deal with her emotional darkness, gain a college education, and try to find a passion for something in life. Diane as a result, views her mother as a mystery, but with love and devotion despite her abandonment, Diane seeks Elizabeth out, and together begin to evoke certain maternal aspects in each of them, and deeper connections.

The emotional frailty of Elizabeth, relatively frowned upon by traditional American society is contrasted nicely with the maternal cultures of the Mayan, with their infant sacrifices. Similarly it is contrasted with the traditional, and largely accepted, male answer to addressing emotional pain: drunkenness. Filled with these sorts of relationship complexities and profound insight in feminist and other cultural matters, “The Falling Woman” is simply a brilliant novel. The writing is simple and straight-forward, but in that way it is delicate and poignant, precise, without ever being over-bearing or too frenetic. Although marketed as SciFi/Fantasy, this is far closer to a literary novel, and fans wanting hard genre adventure may be disappointed with what is here. But those open to exploring dichotomies of culture and characters will find this richly rewarding. Open Road Media, who is publishing this in ebook format, is putting out other works by Murphy as well, and I am definitely putting those on my list to pick up.

Five Stars out of Five

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, by Adrianne Harun

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, by Adrianne Harun
Publisher: Penguin Books
ASIN: B00DMCPIQ4
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Halfway through this atypical novel I immediately marked Harun’s short story collection as something to read. I ended up tearing through “A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain” in a single day between two sittings, and while I’m not convinced that this novel completely works, it still did impress me and evoked a desire to seek out more of Harun’s work, particularly short stories.

Though completed relatively fast, the material in this novel is dense and complex, requiring a certain amount of savor. Although you may be tempted to devour it at once, in retrospect it will probably be more meaningful to take in pieces that can be reflected upon. It is an odd beast in its format. Too long for a novella, but seemingly not a complete novel either. With a relatively large cast of characters and the blurred lines between reality and the fantastic there is a lot of material to cover, and not all of it will be suitably resolved to many readers’ satisfactions. With her previous recognized work in short stories it isn’t too big a surprise that this ‘novel’ thereby exists as more of an intimately joined collection of stories, not even separated by chapter-to-chapter, but within and throughout. The narrative meanders from the main plotline, inspired by actual disappearances of young First Nations girls on a relatively isolated stretch of Canadian highway, to side stories that fit the setting, themes, and style of the work, but could equally exist on their own. Each section thereby isn’t encountered with any necessarily obvious connection to the overall plot.

But you can be sure it will be beautifully written. Just as Harun shifts from plot progression to moments of isolated character introspection or folktale-like asides, so does her style shift from a more simple dialogue-driven narrative to rich poetic descriptions and a more open structure. Again, this could be an unwelcome distraction, it is ultimately hard to make the two styles, the two types of focus merge together into a coherent whole. The merging is most successful in that form of setting and of describing this eerie, chilling environment and situation. It is weakest, however, with the characters. Harun never seems to get a firm grasp on the majority of characters, some of whom seem important, only to vanish. As a result the reader also has a difficult time connecting to, or even following, the characters within the picture of the overall plot. You might get intimate snippets of them from segment to segment, but the tying of it all together fails.

Again, this likely stems from strengths in writing short stories as opposed to novels, or it may be exactly what Harun intends to do here. For me the reading experience could be described as intoxicating and intriguing, producing wonderful atmosphere and some fine writing to appreciate. But tying the plot and character engagement in its overall form never came together for me, leaving the experience strongly magical, lacking a practical physicality, like smelling scrumptious freshly baked cookies without getting that chance to chew, swallow, and feel fully sated.

But it has certainly left me hungry for more and to seek out something more filling in Harun’s other work.

Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five