Monday, June 1, 2015

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry - Fredrik Backman

First line: "Every seven-year-old deserves a superhero."

Elsa is seven going on eight. She's not your average seven-year-old and doesn't fit in at school, in her neighborhood, even in her own family. And now her mother is expecting "Halfie," Elsa's half-sibling, so she fears she really won't belong. But Elsa always feels perfect with her Granny.

After Elsa's parents divorced and she had trouble falling asleep, Granny started taking her to the "Land-of-Almost-Awake:"

"You need to be almost asleep. And in those last few seconds when your eyes are closing, when the mists come rolling in across the boundary between what you think and what you just know, that's when you set off. You ride into the Land-of-Almost-Awake on the back of cloud animals, because that's the only way of getting there."

Elsa and Granny's favorite of the six kingdoms in the Land-of-Almost-Awake is Miamas; this is where Granny's fairy tales come from:

"...there storytelling is considered the noblest profession of all. The currency there is imagination; instead of buying something with coins you buy it with a good story. Libraries aren't know as libraries but as 'banks' and every fairy tale is worth a fortune."

Granny, like Elsa, doesn't fit in. She's independent, opinionated, disorganized and very good at getting on people's nerves. But she tells Elsa the most wonderful stories and takes her on the grandest adventures. With Granny, Elsa is happy. So when Elsa learns her Granny has cancer and is going to die, the news is beyond crushing. Her whole world collapses.

But Granny has something special in the works for Elsa. Following Granny's death, Elsa begins receiving letters she has to deliver on behalf of her grandmother. It's a bit of a scavenger hunt. As Elsa delivers each letter, she receives the next and each letter includes an apology from Granny to the recipient. Something else happens as Elsa delivers the letters. Granny's amazing fairy tales start coming to life.

Fredrik Backman blew me away last year with A Man Called Ove. My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry proves he's no one-hit wonder. This guy is the real deal, and storytelling is insufficient to explain the magic he hides between the covers of his novels.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is a tale of life, death and struggle; it's a tribute to individuality, compassion and story. The multiple layers and themes enrich an endearing narrative. From this book readers with find laughter and tears, heartbreak and hope.

The characters explode with rich color and complexity. Elsa, the precocious, Wikipedia-wielding, Harry Potter-worshipping seven-year-old, is a marvelous blend of smart and vulnerable. Her coping mechanisms for life are humorous, yet also charming and authentic. The various people that inhabit the building where Elsa lives add to Backman's rainbow color palate.

Dialogue heightens the persuasiveness of the characters and provides Backman a natural avenue for his brilliant humor:

"'I like physical books.' [woman in the black skirt]
'You can have all sorts of books on an iPad.' [Elsa]
The woman's fingers tremble slightly. She peers at Elsa, a little as one peers at a person one meets outside a toilet, where one has spent just a tad too long.
'That's not what I mean by "a book." I mean a "book" in the sense of the dust jacket, the cover, the pages...'
'A book is the text. And you can read the text on an iPad!'
The woman's eyes open and close like large fans.
'I like holding the book while I'm reading.'
'You can hold an iPad.'
'I mean I like being able to turn the pages,' the woman tries to explain.
'You can turn the pages on an iPad.'
The woman nods, with the slowest nod Elsa has seen in all her life. Else throws her arms out.
'But, you know, do what you like! Have a million books! I was only, like, asking. It's still a book if you're reading it on an iPad. Soup is soup whatever bowl it's in.'"

And if you haven't been able to tell by the selections I've quoted so far, Backman has a genius gift with language. He evokes awe-inspiring imagery:

"The park seems to be creeping under a blanket. She hears another voice beside the first, slurring and stumbling over its words as if it's put its shoes the wrong way round."

snicker-worthy ideas:

"You can kill a nightmare, but you can scare it. And there's nothing so feared by nightmares as milk and biscuits."

and insightful observations:

"Death's greatest power is not that it can make people die, but that it can make people want to stop living."

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is a book, like A Man Called Ove, that I will read again...and again...and again. There is so much to glean from the pages that one certainly can't get it all in one pass. Book clubs can find hours of discussion in these novels. But even beyond that, there's an immense satisfaction in losing yourself in a magically wonderful story. That's the gift Granny gives Elsa and it's the gift Backman gives us. It is truly a treasure.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is available in hardcover on June 16th from Atria (9781501115066) The Simon & Schuster site is showing an unabridged audio coming, narrated by Joan Walker but as of now, none of the retail outlets are listing it. If this becomes available, I'll let you know.

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