Book Club: Etta and Otto And Russell and James
1. James, from the title Etta and Otto and Russell and James, is a talking Coyote – there can’t be very many books featuring a talking coyote. Or talking fish, for that matter. In other words, this is a tale of magical realism, where the world is not so much portrayed ‘as it is’, as portrayed ‘as it might be’ or ‘as it could be’. And, in fact, this is the central theme of the book: what could be, and in particular, what you could achieve (if you just had a talking coyote by your side…).
2. It’s a walking book. There is a craze for walking books at the moment– The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Wild, Born to Walk, to name but a few – but then there have always been walking books: Into The Wild byJon Krakauer, The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane, The Pilgrim’s Progress… The Proclaimers song that goes ‘I would walk 500 miles’, OK not that last one. But there is something about a meandering struggle at a walking pace that we seem to like. Metaphor for a lot of life? Probably. Satisfying? Definitely. You’ll want to get walking boots after you read this – and you’ll head for the nearest sea.
3. The female protagonist (there is more than one main character) is 83. Another thing we all love is an older main character: The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed Out of th Window and Disappeared, The Old Lady who Broke all the Rules, The Blind Assassin. In Etta and Otto and Russell and James, it is the old woman’s spirit, her drive that is irresistible. Even when she is literally starving, she has gumption in abundance. She is very funny too. Etta is just a fun person to spend time with – and what more do you want from a narrator? And
4. It is a historical novel that touches on WW2 – when you get a period drama and the date is somewhere in the 1930’s, and there is a love story…you just know what is coming. And there is something tantalising and fulfilling about the predictability - like a great tragedy, we know what the end is going to be. Or do we? This is an odd little fairy-tale, so the bets are off more generally…but certainly the war is as devastating as you would imagine.
5. It is multi-voiced and uses many styles too: using letters and short chapters and flashbacks. This year’s Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, is polyphonic too, and was commended for its ambitious and bold structure. Similarly here, there is something fresh about the skips and changes – you get to inhabit all the characters in their present and their past. It is vibrant and never boring – you get to see so much, but yet plenty is left a mystery too.
6. The ending is poetic and surprising and quick-fire and…well, after you get swept up in the clear simple prose, and Etta’s white-knuckle struggles, you’re going to want to know how it all ends.
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