I ‘read’ this book in audio format, chosen because I find my normal fayre of crime fiction bizarrely too hard to listen to, and decided a total change of scene might work better for me, I was right.
I’m not however quite sure how to review it but need to illustrate what an impact Elsa, and her Grandmother had on me as I trudged home from work over a number of weeks. Elsa starts by giving us a few pointers about her Grandmother:
“Granny and Elsa used to watch the evening news together. Now and then Elsa would ask Granny why grown-ups were always doing such idiotic things to each other. Granny usually answered that it was because grown-ups were generally people, and people are generally shits. Elsa countered that grown-ups were also responsible for a lot of good things in between all the idiocy – space exploration, the UN, vaccines and cheese slicers, for instance. Granny then said the real trick of life was that almost no one is entirely a shit and almost no one is entirely not a shit. The hard part of life is keeping as much on the ‘not-a-shit’ side as one can.”
Granny is also a little bit mad. One of the early stories we hear is of her throwing turds at a policeman after breaking into a zoo, firing paintballs from her balcony at one of the most enduring characters of all Britt-Marie and driving a car called Audi, all with Elsa in tow of course. Granny and Elsa live in separate apartments in one building and although the main story is about this wonderful pair; Elsa a super bright child who is ‘different’ and Granny who we discover is similarly different and we have a whole host of other characters whose stories we discover along the way. Child characters always worry me a little and Elsa at ‘nearly eight’ is no different. Fortunately she was an engaging child, full of Marvel super-heros, Harry Potter and a stickler for using Wikipedia a useful device for knowing stuff that no normal nearly eight year old would know and of course as she is absolutely integral to the storyline it was helpful that she was ‘different’ a normal child could never have coped with the pressure!
This might sound like a bit of a ‘twee’ tale, and on a level it is. There is the magic of childhood with an overarching fairy tale world invented by Elsa’s Granny, Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal. But Fredrik Backman has a way of making this absolutely story for adults. In a style seen again in his far darker tale, Beartown, there are insightful words that cover the range of every situation and emotion.
“Death’s greatest power is not that it can make people die, but that it can make people want to stop living.”
Because sadly, and especially because she is Elsa’s only friend, Granny dies and leaves Elsa with a number of letters to be delivered, all of which apologise to the recipient for something. It is while undertaking this task that the other resident’s stories are revealed. Some with happier outcomes, some less so and those stories also reveal more about Granny than all the stories and madcap activities she carried out in Elsa’s presence. As the book goes on it becomes clear who some of the characters in Miamas really are and in turn gives an explanation as to why they are the way they are. Along the way we see war, we see natural disasters in the form of a tsunami, we see bullying and betrayal and we also see that life goes on. Life and death are seen up close and personal through the prism of a those who have witnessed both.
This is a delightful story which was beautifully narrated by Joan Walker who manages to keep her voice steady as some of the more emotional moments and the combination of an unusual story, expertly translated by Herman Koch gave me much pleasure and company while I clocked up my steps!
“She shouldn’t take any notice of what those muppets think, says Granny. Because all the best people are different – look at superheroes.”
I couldn’t help feeling the world would be a much better place if every child had a ‘Granny’ in their corner to guide them.