Fredrik Backman has sidled into my awareness during the last couple of months and I now marvel that it took me so long to discover him. Funnily enough, this wasn’t the first of his books that I planned to read – that was his debut novel, A Man Called Ove – but when I spotted it in the library the other day, I thought I’d take the plunge. And it is absolutely brilliant. A big-hearted, generous, poignant novel, this tells the story of almost-eight-year-old Elsa, her rakish Granny, the wonderful world of fairy tales that they share, and the treasure hunt that Granny leaves behind for Elsa when she dies. A story of eccentricities, regrets and second chances, this had me choking back tears at least three times, while simultaneously wanting to give it a massive bear-hug. Utterly magical.
Elsa doesn’t fit in. Her mum and dad have separated and her mum is about to have a new baby with George, who wants nothing more than to be liked, but Elsa doesn’t want to give him that satisfaction. Grown-ups think she’s too sharp for her age, and her classmates at school hate her for being different. Elsa used to run away from them, but now she often ends up having to fight, and that means more sessions in the headmaster’s office while he stresses that she should try to ‘fit in’ more. But Elsa doesn’t understand what’s so bad about reading a lot of books and correcting adults when they get things wrong and always checking Wikipedia to find out facts and definitions. And correcting misspelled signs with her red felt-tip pen. Luckily, Elsa has always had Granny, who doesn’t fit in either. Granny smokes wherever she can, even if you’re not meant to, and shouts back at people and fires her paintball gun from the balcony at unsuspecting neighbours and has a knack of riling pompous Britt-Marie, whose husband Kent is the chairman of the residents’ association.
And Granny tells the best stories. Only they’re not stories, they’re true. Ever since Elsa’s mum and dad divorced, Granny has told her stories of the Land-of-Almost-Awake and of the kingdoms there, where all fairy tales are created and unleashed into the ‘real’ world. Elsa is a sworn knight of Miamas, the greatest of the kingdoms, and Granny has told her all the histories, from the War-Without-End against the shadows, to stories of princesses and knights and the evil shadows who seek to leach all the imagination out of the world. When that happens, the Land-of-Almost-Awake will fall and there will be no more fairy tales, and no more courage, and no more laughter. Granny and Elsa can’t allow that. And so, when one day Granny goes into Miamas and doesn’t come back, leaving Elsa with a treasure hunt and a letter for a monster, Elsa has to pluck up her courage and carry on, to make sure that at least someone is protecting the castle against the forces of darkness.
Told entirely from no-nonsense Elsa’s point of view, this is a glorious evocation of childhood, but by reading between the lines there’s also a lot of bittersweet comments on how we teach children to face reality through the lessons of fairy tales. As Elsa’s adventure develops, fairy tales and real life feed into one another, revealing ancient secrets. Danger, when it comes – as it always does in fairy tales – is terrifying, but perhaps not for the same reasons that it would frighten a grown-up. Elsa can see the true face of things, which grown-ups have forgotten. Accompanied by the loyal (but somewhat erratic) warrior Wolfheart, who would be slightly more useful if he wasn’t terrified of germs, and the ferocious wurse, which looks a bit like a very large black dog and loves biscuits, Elsa finds herself delivering a series of letters to the residents of the ‘castle’ (her block of flats). Each letter passes on Granny’s apologies to the relevant person, for her misdeeds and failures in life, and knots another thread in the new relationship between her little granddaughter and the quirky residents of this Swedish block.
This isn’t a story for children, though. It’s a story for grown-ups who remember what it was like to be a child, who understand the power of bedtime stories, and who still have a glimmer of magical awe left inside their hearts. It’s a story for people who’ve known love and loss and grief: a moving, heartbreaking, wonderful tale of a grandmother who’s a bit naughty, but still a superhero, and one very special little girl.
Good grief, I can’t wait to read Backman’s other books. I know they all deal with the same characters who live in this particular block of flats, and I’m itching to know more about the prim Britt-Marie, who’s the ‘heroine’ of the other book I found in the library: Britt-Marie Was Here. Has anyone else read Backman’s books? If so, what do you make of them?