The letter began, in blue ink.
I’ve gone. I’ve never seen the water, so I’ve gone there. Don’t worry, I’ve left you the truck. I can walk. I will try to remember to come back.
Etta leaves Otto, her husband of several decades with a stack of recipe cards as she sets off to walk to the sea. She is 83 and beginning to forget things so she carries a piece of paper with her which reminds her who she is and who she’s related to.
As she sets out from the house she and Otto live in, she crosses Russell Palmer’s land. Russell is outside, ‘halfway between his house and the end of his land’:
Russell was looking for deer. He was too old, now, to work his own land, the hired crew did that, so in he looked for deer from right before sunrise until an hour or so after and then again from an hour of so before sunset until right after. Sometimes he saw one. Mostly he didn’t.
The story of Etta’s walk is intertwined with both hers and Otto and Russell’s childhood. Etta has a sister Alma but when Etta’s fifteen, Alma becomes pregnant and leaves the family home to live in a convent. Only Etta knows the truth.
Otto is one of fifteen. In order to keep track of all the children, Maria, the eldest, allocates them all a number to which they must respond. Otto is number seven. One day at dinner, he finds another boy in his chair, a boy who is not his brother.
Otto looked at him, then reached across, in front, and took the spoon from him.
That’s mine, he said.
OK, said the boy.
The boy said nothing else and Otto didn’t know what else to say, or do. He stood behind his chair, trying not to drop all his things, trying not to cry. He knew the rules. You didn’t bother parents with child problems unless there was blood or it involved an animal…
Otto’s mother was spooning exactly one ladle of soup into each child’s bowl. One for each, exactly, until, a pause, and
I don’t think you’re Otto.
No, neither do I.
I’m Otto, right here.
Then who is this?
I’m from next door. I’m starving. I’m Russell.
But the Palmers don’t have any children.
They have a nephew. One nephew. Me.
Otto’s mother paused. Clara-2, she said, get another bowl from the cupboard, please.
And so Russell becomes part of the family and Otto and he are like brothers. The pair of them meet Etta when she takes a job as the village school teacher. Russell’s adoration of her is evident from the day of her arrival but it’s not until Otto goes to war and they begin to write to each other that their attraction begins to grow.
The things that impressed me about the novel were: it’s about three old people – hurrah, how often does that happen? (the book I reviewed yesterday and the book I’m reviewing tomorrow also have old people as their focus but you don’t come across it that often); the writing’s fluid and conjures vivid pictures of people, places, incidents; the structure moves easily between present and past; there are some lovely moments of magical realism (I’ve seen it described as ‘gentle magic realism’ which should help if you find that sort of thing off-putting), and if the revelation I had when I finished the novel is correct, it’s a very good allegory. (I’ll not share it with you for fear of spoilers.)
However, I did have a problem with the Etta and Otto falling in love when he’s been her pupil. It says they’re the same age and she’s not his teacher anymore when it happens – he’s at war – but still it felt off to me and if Otto had been the teacher it would have been viewed differently, I think.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and also, in one specific instance of The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy. It will certainly appeal to fans of the former.
Thanks to Fig Tree for the review copy.