It’s a wordy and possibly unappealing title, but this was a book that delighted, surprised, amused and saddened me in equal measure – sometimes all at once. A philosophical adventure with pretty much just the right amount of everything.
The story opens with a hilarious scene introducing the two main characters: Elsa, a seven-going-on-seventy-year-old girl, and her seventy-going-on-seven-year-old Granny. Elsa struggles with being ‘different’ (namely, it seems: able to read very well, having a very impressive vocabulary, a quick (but annoying) wit, swears a lot, and also a desire to dress up Spider-Man outfits on mufti day). The first chapter really sets the tone as we find them in a police station after Granny has been arrested for “throwing monkey sh#t at a police officer” whilst she was supposed to be looking after Elsa.
Elsa and Granny share a very special bond. They spend much of their time in the Land of Almost Awake, a fairy tale world which it turns out is much closer to home than Elsa originally thought. They even have a secret language that they can use together, though generally for mischievous purposes.
When the worst happens, we follow Elsa as she goes on a long treasure hunt that her Granny sets for her, which teaches her much about herself, and others around her to whom she’s not given much thought.
(Too many) modern references?
I was concerned when I read the first couple of chapters because there were many, many references to popular culture: Harry Potter, Spider-Man, X-men, Wikipedia, iPhones… I found it a bit exhausting and did wonder whether this would seriously date the book. It does, however, make sense for the story (some of the most touching moments revolve and build upon Elsa’s objects of interest) and it calmed down after the scene had been set, which was a relief.
Much of what we think is Granny “being Granny” actually seems to be for Elsa’s benefit, either distracting her from a hard day running from school bullies or teaching her a quick lesson. They are very passionate and often row with each other – in fact, everyone rows with pretty much everyone else in this tale!
Perhaps it was this open, honest rowing between both family and strangers, perhaps it was something else, but it did slowly dawn on me that whilst I’d assumed the story I was reading was set in Britain (such an insular Brit that I am), I began to realise that it definitely isn’t! In fact, I took the time to look up Fredrik Backman, the author, who is in fact Swedish, though I won’t hold it against him (I’M JOKING PLEASE DON’T LEAVE). The book only reads like a translation at a couple of points (most obviously there are a couple of moments where Elsa’s dad tells her off for ‘using an English word’ when her own language would do fine – which I suppose is probably a common frustration for parents in non-English speaking countries) but it really does read very well and hits home despite the minor cultural differences.
If it helps, I will confess that I do use German or French myself occasionally (ooh la la) though I must admit it tends to be to allow me to swear without feeling like a luddite with no imagination…
This book is stock full of characters: old, young, strong, weak, troubled, alcoholic, grieving… and many of the people have long backstories that we only get a glimpse of, but it somehow feels very satisfying each time something is revealed (in fact, one of the characters has a spin-off book of her own). Although the characters are richly portrayed throughout the book, we soon come to learn them by the cheeky nicknames they are given by Elsa, such as; ‘green eyes’, ‘the woman in the black dress’, ‘the boy with the syndrome’. In some ways, I feel the less Elsa likes someone, the less likely they are to get an affectionate nickname like this.
It’s snowing again, and Elsa decides that even if people she likes have been sh*ts on earlier occasions, she has to learn to carry on liking them. You’d quickly run out of people if you had to disqualify all those who at some points had been sh*ts
One somewhat philosophical question that is asked in different ways throughout the tale is: does being a quirky, fun-loving grandma atone for everything you’ve done in the past? Or is Granny just different like Elsa is different? As Granny says herself:
‘it’s a grandmother’s privilege never to have to show her grandchild who she was before she became a grandmother’
Sometimes the issues here are pretty serious (beyond that which a grandchild would be likely to comprehend) – she spends much of the story angry at her grandmother, but I wondered whether she had as many reasons to do so as some of the other characters in the story (though I suppose a child’s anger is less rational, often than that of adults).
The book seems to follow a beginning – middle – beginning pattern, which I think works really well with the nature of it: death and new life, in particular, are dealt with, as well as relationships that have broken down and are fixed, cautiously, over time.
This pattern was used both across the whole story and occasionally within a single chapter. In particular there seems to be a pattern of the author opening with a line of Elsa’s special brand of 7-year-old-philosophy, but the chapter moves along as per normal, and suddenly at the end of the chapter the philosophical line might come in again, but this time it makes much more sense in as it is in context.
An element of the storytelling style that I particularly enjoyed was that I never quite knew how real the fairy tales were throughout – everything seemed to click so well that you wonder whether they are stories that only she can see the inner-workings of, or whether it is just another, poetic way to express what is happening in reality. Similar to Ink by Alice Broadway, much of the story revolves around the telling of stories and how important that is in life.
Grandmother sends her regards and apologises is a lovely, entertaining book, humorous but also very sad – sometimes getting blindsided by it. Fredrik Backman is extremely good at balance and has created a beautiful emotional contrast, which makes for a very satisfying read.