MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE'S SORRY (2015/16)
By Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 377 pages.
Are you an adult who read the Harry Potter books–without a child–and secretly thrilled to each one of them? Do you feel kind of embarrassed by how much you enjoyed them? If so, do I have a book for you! My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is, simply, the most charming book I've read in many, many years. Yes, it's about a child, and yes, it contains long sections of fantasy and magic. But, no, it's not really a children's book. In fact, there are numerous themes–divorce, death, violence–that could traumatize a pre-teen.
Sweden's Fredrik Backman burst onto the literary scene with his poignant and delightful A Man Called Ove. I read his third book, Britt-Marie Was Here, before I got hold of My Grandmother, his second book and one in which Britt-Marie is a character. All three books are marvels, but My Grandmother is in that special category that makes you grateful for teachers who taught you to read. As I've noted elsewhere, a great book takes you to places you've never been before, and this book does that in spades. It centers on Elsa, who is seven, but reminds everyone she's "almost eight" and that "I'm not an idiot!" That's for sure—she's precocious, voluble, and wise beyond her years. Alas, in the world of children, being different makes her a freak–worse, it makes her the target of physically abusive bullies. Elsa's only friend is Granny, whom most adults see as bat-shit nuts. She's not, but she's crank extraordinaire and not the sort who most people would think of as an appropriate role model. Her advice to Elsa for dealing with male bullies: "Kick 'em in the fuse box," which is just the sort of activity that gets you in big trouble and leads school personnel to suggest Elsa needs serious counseling. She doesn't and Granny knows this. Granny has a host of issues, but she's fiercely protective of Elsa in ways that her too-busy physician mother, remarried father, or pacifying stepfather can't be. Best of all, Granny helps Elsa construct a fantasy escape world: the Land-of-the-Almost-Awake, which has six kingdoms, the biggest of which is Miamas. Forget Hogwart's; Miamas is more magical than anything J. K. Rowling ever conjured. There are cloud animals that capture stories in golden nets and release them to the world, heroes that ended the War-Without-End, monsters, shadows, and special animals—including a giant dog-like creature called a "wurse." Some of Backman's descriptions of Miamas—often through Granny's voice–are so deeply moving you'll need to wipe your eyes. Seriously!
And then Granny dies. Elsa is hurt, angry, and adrift, though the latter phase doesn't last long, as she discovers that Granny has left her with a special task: to deliver letters to various people to whom she wishes to apologize. But for what? Surely not her outrageous behavior–she's not the least bit sorry for any of that! I will not give away any of the charming mystery that unfolds. Let's just say that there are Big Fish moments in which the borders between fantasy and reality collide. The mystery also involves Granny's pre-Elsa life, the back-stories of people in Elsa's apartment complex (including Britt-Marie), family drama, real-life monsters, and Granny-charged protectors. And, yes, even a chocolate-eating wurse.* What a story! What revelations!
One of the most clichéd phrases in book reviews is, "I didn't want the book to end." I truly didn't. I wanted to drift off to Miamas, watch the cloud animals, and listen to tales I had never heard before. Backman's book is as magical as the Elvin kingdom in Lord of the Rings, as heroic as a Roald Dahl story, as offbeat as one of Neil Gaiman's less-gruesome offerings, and as addictive as—yep!—Harry Potter. Check your cynicism at page one, declare yourself a terminal curmudgeon if you've not done so by page 50, and don't tell me about it if you retain an ounce of misanthropy. I utterly adored this book and I've forgiven Granny for all of her shortcomings, including dying.
*Scenes of feeding chocolate to the wurse have bothered readers with more love for dogs than common sense. Oh please—this is fantasy and it's not at all clear that the wurse is (entirely) a dog. Besides, a dog of this size would have to ingest more than four pounds of chocolate to be in danger, and most dogs vomit long before they reach critical toxicity levels. If you're an adult, go with the fantasy; if you are sharing this book with a teenager, use it as a teaching moment.