books, Reading

“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman

“Granny notices the look in her eyes and leans forward before whispering in their secret language:
          ‘One day we’ll take those losers at your school to Miamas and throw them to the lions!’
          Elsa dries her eyes with the back of her hand and smiles faintly.
          ‘I’m not stupid, Granny,’ she whispers. ‘I know you did all that stuff tonight to make me forget about what happened at school.’
          Granny kicks at some gravel and clears her throat.
          ‘I didn’t want you to remember this day because of the scarf. So I thought instead you could remember it as the day your Granny broke into a zoo -‘
          ‘And escaped from a hospital,’ Elsa says with a grin.
          ‘And escaped from a hospital,’ says Granny with a grin.
          ‘And threw turds at the police.’
          ‘Actually, it was soil! Or mainly soil, anyway,’
          ‘Changing memories is a good superpower, I suppose.’
          Granny shrugs.
          ‘If you can’t get rid of the bad, you have to top it up with more goody stuff.’
          ‘That’s not a word.’
          ‘I know.’
          ‘Thanks, Granny,’ says Elsa and leans her head against her arm.
          And then Granny just nods and whispers: ‘We’re knights of the kingdom of Miamas, we have to do our duty.’
          Because all seven-year-olds deserve superheroes.
          And anyone who doesn’t agree needs their head examined.

IMG_0889“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” may just be the kindest, warmest-hearted, non-saccharine sweet book I’ve ever read. It fills my heart just to flip back through the pages in order to decide how to share it with you. I’ve marked about 15 passages to reference; that’s how giddy this book made me. Don’t be fooled, though. This story has innumerable darknesses. It’s just that the darknesses make the light that much brighter. It is a story full of flaws and mistakes, not on the part of the author but on the part of every character who inhabits it.

Backman writes the story of Elsa, an extraordinary little girl growing up in an apartment building full of misfits and characters, a girl raised by her mum Ulrika and her wild, iconoclastic Granny. Elsa is wise beyond her years. She is fearless, precocious, saucy, and irresistibly lovable. Her Granny has created for and with her a magical world, a place of miraculous kingdoms and fairy tales to which they “travel” together in their minds whenever they need to escape and to ease the hurts caused by the world around them. When Elsa’s Granny dies, she leaves behind a series of letters which Elsa must find and deliver one by one. More than simple amends, Granny has constructed a real-life scavenger hunt to help Elsa to explore her world, to learn to understand the people who surround her, and to apologize for her Granny’s many slights and foibles.

Elsa has learned to navigate the world through her mother’s rigidity and order and her granny’s utter chaos and creativity. Though the two central, formative figures in her life seem diametrically opposed to one another, Elsa somehow, magically, mirrors them both.

         “They argue a lot, Mum and Granny. They’ve been arguing for as long as Elsa can remember. About everything. If Granny is a dysfunctional superhero, then Mum is very much a fully operational one. Their interaction is a bit like Cyclops and Wolverine in X-Men, Elsa often thinks, and whenever she has those types of thoughts she wishes she had someone around who could understand what she means. People around Elsa don’t read enough quality literature and certainly don’t understand that X-Men comics count as precisely that. To such philistines Elsa would explain, very slowly, that X-Men are indeed superheroes, but first and foremost they are mutants, and there is a certain academic difference. Anyway, without putting too fine a point on it, she would sum it up by saying that Granny’s and Mum’s superhero powers are in direct opposition. As if Spider-Man, one of Elsa’s favorite superheroes, had an antagonist called Slip-Up Man whose superpower was that he couldn’t even climb onto a bench. But in a good way.
          Basically, Mum is orderly and Granny is chaotic. Elsa once read that ‘Chaos is God’s neighbor,’ but Mum said if Chaos had moved onto God’s landing it was only because Chaos couldn’t put up with living next door to Granny anymore.”

Elsa’s love of superhero mutants isn’t ancillary to the story. This is a story chock full of superhero mutants. Its characters are richly flawed and beautifully damaged, just like the rest of us. There is the ‘wurse’, an oversized, mythical beast of a dog; the ‘monster’, an enormous and mostly silent man with an incredibly violent past and an achingly soft heart; the cab driver, a man full of ire and epithets and stifled love.

“People who see them on the pavement react as people generally do when they catch sight of a girl, a wurse, and a monster strolling along side by side: they cross the street. Some of them try to pretend it has nothing to do with the fact that they are scared of monsters and wurses and girls, by demonstratively pretending to be having loud telephone conversations with someone who suddenly gives the different directions and tells them to go the opposite way. That is also what Elsa’s dad does sometimes when he’s gone the wrong way and he doesn’t want strangers to realize he’s one of those types who go the wrong way. Elsa’s mum never has that problem, because if she goes the wrong way she just keeps going until whoever she was supposed to be meeting has to follow her. Granny used to solve the problem by shouting at road signs. It varies, how people deal with it.” 

“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” is an adult fairy tale. It is full of magic and wonder. It moved me the way monumental books of my childhood moved me. In an honest, visceral exploration of love, friendship, grief, and human fallibility, Backman has created something astonishing, pure, and magnificent. And as the sage Elsa says, “Anyone who doesn’t agree needs their head examined.”

“Because without music there can’t be any dreams, and without dreams there can’t be any fairy tales, and without fairy tales there can’t be any courage, and without courage no one would be able to bear any sorrows…” 


3 thoughts on ““My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” by Fredrik Backman”

  1. The world would be a poorer place without mutant superhero grannys. I wish I’d had one but both of mine could have given Elsa’s mom a run for her money. This definitely goes on the tbr pile.


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