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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

One morning Otto Vogel, an elderly Saskatchewan farmer, finds a note from his 83-year-old wife, Etta, on the kitchen table in their home. It says she has gone off to walk to the ocean, which she has never seen. So begins this beguiling book, which doesn’t so much tell a linear story as reveal deeper and deeper layers of emotion, love, and pain in the interlocking and overlapping lives of Otto, Etta, their extended families, and their friend and neighbour Russell.

Etta walks eastward, heading toward Nova Scotia and the sea. She crosses the flat dustiness of Saskatchewan into Manitoba, and thence into the endless trees of Ontario, and on to the linguistic pride that is Quebec. As she walks, the narrative looks back to Etta’s, Otto’s, and Russell’s lives and both the harshness they have experienced—hardscrabble farming, the horrors of war, untimely deaths of loved ones, unspoken regrets—and their lifelong devotion to each other.

Author Emma Hooper’s style is spare, even down to the punctuation. No quotation marks, few commas. Her descriptions are terse, and she gives few details. Instead she makes her words resonate by repetition and emphasis. The effect is quite lyrical. This book has been called “magical” because it contains elements that are rationally inexplicable (Etta and a coyote have multiple conversations, for instance, and Otto and Etta share each other’s dreams).

But the true magic is something quite different and special. The style and pacing surround the reader to the point where one is breathing in the same rhythm as the writing. Hooper draws the reader in by leaving much implied or left unsaid. She relates the basic facts, certainly, but many scenes end with a suggestion, a possibility, but no summary or defining word or phrase. The reader is left to make his or her own conclusion from those facts and thereby becomes more of an intimate participant than a distanced spectator. It makes the magic believable, and the story turns into an exercise in life’s essentials.

There is no emotional extravagance in this book. The emotions are as spare as the prose, yet they penetrate. So do not read this book for rich exposition, copiously detailed character sketches, philosophical musing, or the author’s politics. Read it to feel. Wonderful, engaging, and unique.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James is published in Canada by Penguin Canada.

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