Tuesday, July 19, 2022

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry by Fredrik Backman

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


I put this one on my book list in part because my wife recommended it - she read it as part of her other book club, and thought it was good. Also, I try to read books in translation regularly, and have enjoyed the various books I have read by Swedish authors. (Most recently, The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. 

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry shares a certain vibe with other Swedish books I have read. There is a certain over-the-top absurdity that runs from the old Pippi Longstocking kid books (and the awkwardly dubbed movies we watched as kids whenever they came on broadcast TV) to the madcap adventures of a centenarian noted above. In this book too, the young protagonist, seven year old Elsa, is precocious and a bit outrageous. Although not as outrageous as her grandmother. 


Elsa is probably not neurotypical. She reads Wikipedia obsessively, has pretty much memorized Harry Potter, and seems to have no filter on what she says. She is endearing in a way, but also a bit too much to handle. (As I said, this seems a hallmark of Swedish fiction.) Because she is “different,” she is bullied at school, and then punished when she hits back. 


Her only real friend at the beginning of the book is her grandmother. And, wow, Granny is crazy. I mean, the book opens with Granny checking herself out of the hospital late at night and, along with Elsa, breaking into the zoo. And before that, she shot paintballs from the balcony, drove like a lunatic, and generally caused havoc wherever she went. 


Well, until cancer gets her, which devastates Elsa. Before she dies, she gives Elsa an assignment - an adventure: she must deliver notes to various people and say “my grandmother sends her regards and apologizes.” This begins a journey of discovery for Elsa, about her grandmother, and herself.


I should back up a bit. Elsa and Granny have a special bond because Granny has been her primary caretaker. Mom is a mucky-muck at the hospital, and divorced from Dad, while Granny is retired. This multi-generational approach to child care used to be the way most humans did things - and in many cases still do. 


Elsa and Granny have a few special connections too. Granny has created a detailed fantasy world, the “Land of Almost Awake,” where they go together at bedtime (and sometimes other times), and a “secret language” that they communicate in. I get the impression the language is just Greek - as we come to learn, Granny was once a world-traveling surgeon, and had a Greek friend. 


As the book unfolds, Elsa learns a lot she didn’t know about her grandmother and her past, and also about the other residents of the apartment house she lives in. It turns out that they all of connections to Granny, and fascinating pasts of their own. There is the veteran of a war (not really specified) who is germaphobic and shell shocked, a psychologist whose husband and children drowned in a tsunami, the brothers who fell out over their mutual love of a woman. It also turns out that they are all menaced by a violent and abusive man looking for his ex-wife and child. Oh, and also a giant dog that eats nothing but sweets. (Not realistic, but this book has that absurdity throughout.)


For the most part, the book is humorous. The characters are amusing, and anything involving Granny is outrageous and hilarious. But the emotional core is a lot darker. Elsa is experiencing grief that she has no idea how to process, and the adults around her seem unable to help her. Her mother tries (and eventually they connect), but she has some very complicated grief of her own: she was raised by a neighbor while Granny was off saving the world overseas. Everyone has their own difficulties and issues, from a failing marriage to an unfaithful man, to PTSD, to deep grief, to a disappointing life. As Granny says, most people are a mixture of shitty and not-entirely shitty, and this applies to all the characters. 


The eventual direction of the book takes a while to emerge. As Elsa realizes, all those fairy tales that Granny made up had an underlying basis in actual people and events, and part of the point was to prepare Elsa for the possibility that the violent man discovers his child, who will need to be defended. 


Thus, the book is a bit dark and humorous, but not darkly humorous, if that makes any sense. 


The best parts of the book were, in my opinion, the excellent portrayal of Elsa, who is both “different” and yet very human and relatable; and the psychological exploration of the effects of grief and trauma on the various characters. Oh, and, of course, the invention of Granny and her worldbuilding. There is nothing forgettable about this book - no formula. It feels unique, and memorable. It also feels recognizably foreign - it isn’t the sort of book you would find by, say, an American or British author. I think this may be a reason that some of my wife’s club members found it strange and difficult at first. 


The audiobook was read by Joan Walker, who did an excellent job. I do have an issue with the audiobook, and it is a common one. The tracks are a whole chapter long, so there are only four or five tracks on a 75 minute CD. Since I listen during my commute, and don’t always take the same car, this was highly frustrating. Other audiobooks do 3-5 minute tracks, which is what every audiobook should do. 


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