This is a remarkable first novel from Emma Hooper. Etta, Otto and Russell are in their eighties, yet still in a love triangle going back years. Initially I was confused by the location. The isolated farmsteads, the wind and dust suggest the Midwest but no, we’re in Saskatchewan. One morning Etta, aged eighty two, leaves a note and sets off on a solitary walk because she needs to see ‘the water’. She will be walking right across Canada.
The story is set before, during and a long time after the Second World War. The narrative is arranged like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle scattered all over a table; you have to put the picture together for yourself. At times the characters become confused so that one is sharing the experiences of the other. The style is also eccentric: no punctuation used for speech, for instance. Everything James says is printed in italics and to know the reason for that, you’ll just have to read the book.
As Etta progresses on her journey her picture appears in a newspaper and she becomes famous. Welcoming parties appear, people want to meet her and to give her things. This is all reminiscent of Rachel James’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry but the books couldn’t be more different. I’m now haunted by three images. Etta: the young school teacher, the war worker and the old woman with a mission it’s hard to understand. Faithful Russell, determined to find her. Otto waiting; writing letters Etta will never read, making animal sculptures for who knows what reason. A haunting and strangely touching novel.
I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It will be published by Penguin at the end of January and is worth looking out for.