Ever since I read and loved A Man Called Ove last summer, I’ve been looking forward to reading all the other translated work by the Swedish bestseller Fredrik Backman. At last, I had the opportunity to tackle two of his novels which I had received as Christmas gifts.
The first of these novels, which I’m reviewing today, is called My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises.
My Grandmother Sends Her Regards & Apologises by Fredrik Backman
Original name: Min mormor hälsar och säger förlåt (Swedish)
Author: Fredrik Backman
Translator: Henning Koch
Edition: 2016 (Paperback)
Genre: humour, fantasy, contemporary
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars
To most people, seven-year-old Elsa’s granny is eccentric, if not crazy.
To Elsa, she’s a superhero.
One with a superpower like no other: storytelling.
When Granny leaves Elsa a mysterious series of letters apologising to those she has wronged, her stories come to life in ways Elsa could never have imagined, sending her on a breathtaking adventure of her own…
The fantastic world of Elsa and Granny
The eponymous grandmother is a very particular woman. After spending her life as a doctor travelling the world and saving lives, the seventy-seven-year-old settled next to her daughter Ulrika to be close to her grandchild, Elsa. Granny is a troublemaker, a compulsive liar and doesn’t act like her age at all. Everyone around her considers her a nutjob.
Elsa, on the other hand, is “very grown-up for her age”. She’s “seven, going on eight”, highly intelligent (she looks up everything on Wikipedia on her iPad, collects words in a jar and acts like a grammar-nazi) and a huge fan of “quality literature” such as Harry Potter and superheroes like Spiderman. She’s proud to be different, even if that difference has earned her bullies at school. In fact, Elsa’s only friend is Granny. Granny is her superhero with the special power of storytelling. The grandmother doesn’t just retell traditional fairy tales at her bedside but builds a world of fantasy divided into six kingdoms, each with a distinct characteristic:
All fairy tales that are worth something come from Miamas, says Granny. The other five kingdoms in the Land-of-Almost-Awake are busy doing other things: Mirevas is the kingdom where they stand guard over dreams, Miploris is the kingdom where they store all sorrow, Mimovas is where music comes from, Miaudacas is where courage comes from and Mibatalos is the kingdom where the bravest warriors, who fought against the fearsome shadows in the War-Without-End, were raised. (pages 12-13)
Elsa often complains to Granny that she steals from Harry Potter for her Miamas fairy tales but in any case, these stories are valuable for the young girl’s formation. Granny’s stories explain the real world; they distract, console and heal Elsa from the pain of sad events. The Land-of-Almost-Awake – with its princes, warriors, cloud animals and shadows – feels as real as our world. That’s how Granny – from her hospital bed where she lies terminally ill – spices up things by sending Elsa, as knight of Miamas, on a “treasure hunt”. One letter in which Granny says sorry, addressed to a mysterious character, sets the adventure in motion and, like a chain reaction, it reveals how the tenants of the block where Granny and Elsa live are unexpectedly all connected to each other. Elsa learns that the Land-of-Almost-Awake is much more real than she had thought and she also discovers important stories from the past that will make her rethink everything she thought she knew about Granny.
Backman + fantasy = ?
As with Backman’s previous novel, both the style and the story are refreshing. The third-person narration focuses on Elsa’s point of view; therefore it tries to mimic an intelligent, seven-year-old girl by use of a contortive syntax full of repeated words and lots of ‘and’. Since Elsa is precocious, there are also many words (and subjects) of which a normal seven-year-old would hardly know the meaning. The author always justifies this lexical choice: either Elsa learned it on Wikipedia or heard it from somewhere. This kind of justification is prolonged throughout the book and eventually, this quirky aspect, along with Elsa’s “know-it-all” attitude, tends to become tiring, even though the character remains likeable.
Another slight problem I had with the narration was the descriptions of the Land-of-Almost-Awake spread over most of the chapters. These involve a careful explanation of each kingdom and the events that shaped them, as well as particular fairy tales. As we read on, it becomes evident that all these details are essential to understanding the whole story. However, there were some points where these descriptions slowed down my reading and paused my excitement. It’s not necessarily due to the author’s fault but probably because I’m not a fantasy reader. What I certainly appreciated was the general theme of storytelling and world-building. In fact, there are also various meta-narrative elements that point to the actual act of inventing a story with a moral. That’s why I would recommend this book not only to readers of fantasy but especially to authors, as they could find it inspirational.
Like a modern-day Astrid Lindgren story for adults and kids
My Grandmother bears a lot of similarities with A Man Called Ove. Like in Ove, the primary focus is on intergenerational relationships. It’s about that special bond between a grandparent and a grandchild, and it shows how, as is often the case, a grandmother considers her grandchild as a second chance at raising a kid. The character of Elsa’s pregnant mum completes the picture of an all-female line of three generations. Moreover, like Ove, the novel is also about how various persons living in a community come together in surprising ways. Each character is presented almost like a cartoonish stereotype: the overly nice couple, the snobbish couple, the grumpy neighbour, etc. As the story unravels layer by layer and the puzzle pieces start falling into place, each character’s past is uncovered, and their personality becomes more rounded. Like I had said about Ove, every person has a backstory that explains his present nature. Even the villains turn out to be human after all. That’s what I love about Backman, he seems to understand all the shades of a person’s character perfectly.
I wish I had been close to a grandmother or that I had been told fairy tales in bed as a kid. Perhaps I could have enjoyed the book a bit more, and Elsa would have been more relatable. It’s only this that prevents me from rating the novel a full five stars. Despite all that, My Grandmother is another heartwarming, feel-good book. It didn’t make me cry like Ove, but it’s still memorable and worthwhile. It reads like a modern-day Astrid Lindgren story both for kids of Elsa’s age (if you overlook all the “bloody”s and the “damned”s in the text) as well as for adults in need of inspiration for their storytelling and wanting to revive their childhood memories with their grandparents.