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My mom was raving about A Man Called Ove, but the title never grabbed me and Ove sounds too bitter. Instead, she talked me into borrowing another Fredrik Backman novel with a reportedly similar format, one whose protagonist sounded more my type.

That protagonist is Elsa, an "almost-eight-year-old" as the present-tense, third-person limited narration puts it. (Think I used enough hyphens?) Early in the story, she loses her grandmother, whom she considers her only friend, to cancer. But Granny has one last treasure hunt in store; it involves finding and delivering letters of apology to everyone who lives in their building. In the process, Elsa learns a lot more about her and them, with valuable information unfolding like a mystery. She'd actually heard much of it before, in the guise of fairy tales....

Between her brains and somewhat unusual upbringing (divorced parents and a questionable role model in Granny), Elsa tends to seem older than eight. For example, she's well-acquainted with The Lord of the Rings and has reread every Harry Potter volume many times. Her idea of "quality literature" extends to Marvel Comics, which I'm sure she knows better than I do. Sometimes she sees popular movies not meant for her age. Only once in a while does she allude to a work I never heard of -- probably not from the English-speaking world. This is set in Sweden, after all, and we get reminders not just from character names but from occasional mentions of her favorite things to say in English. Including profanity that I sure didn't use in second grade. Yeah, this book isn't really for kids.

You may infer that Elsa has little use for any work that isn't fantasy or at most soft sci-fi. You don't know the half. Ever since Granny introduced her to "the Land of Almost Awake" (a sort of quasi-dreamworld that people can apparently visit together somehow without closing their eyes), she has come to believe that dreams and fairy tales are just as important as reality. And that anyone who dismisses a nightmare is "idiotic."

That right there is a good clue to why Elsa has no friends at school. She's not just smart and eccentric; she's terribly judgmental and doesn't seem to realize how abrasive her words are. Her favorite gift to date is a red pen, which she uses to correct errors wherever she finds them.* It doesn't take much to get her mad if not hateful, including toward her unborn half-sibling. As seven-year-old girls go, she doesn't sound cute, apart from her habit of regarding cars like people with makes as their individual names . Still, I pity her, especially when she faces physical bullying from boys and girls alike. Which offers the fringe benefit of improving her running skills.

(*I felt obliged to dig out a red pencil and correct a typo in the book, but I couldn't think of a good way to mark a subtle anachronism. See, Elsa was born on the date of the December 26 tsunami, so the current events, in preparation for both Christmas and her birthday, would have to be in 2012 -- but she thinks about a moment in Iron Man 3, which debuted in 2013. Nice try, Backman.)

Elsa comes to take stock of what she inherited from whom. I'd say she learned her worst behaviors from Granny, who ranted about fascism when told not to smoke in the hospital. Most of the time, everyone other than Elsa found Granny's rebellious, often screwy nature insufferable. Even Elsa got into heated arguments with her, usually over petty things. But to anyone in a crisis, Granny was the go-to hero, especially back in her doctor days. Basically, she thrived on chaos and never got the hang of order, despite the impressive organization of her imaginary realm.

The other people in her building all have a story worth telling, whether in metaphor or realistic terms. Some the narration avoids calling by name, like "the woman in the black skirt," because Elsa simply thinks of them that way. (Did she read Curious George a lot?) Some of them are easy to like right away, tho they have their past failings. Some rival Granny for annoyance. Old biddy Britt-Marie, for instance, is as cluelessly insulting as Elsa, but her imagination runs in a very different direction, so they hardly get along. (Backman wrote a sequel focused on her, with a chapter at the back of this book; I don't think I could take it.) Nevertheless, they all win our understanding if not our sympathy. Elsa likes to see everyone as having a "superpower."

I might mention that there is a villain more threatening than the school bullies and unneighborly tenants. In Elsa's view, this makes sense: She lives in a fairy tale, and it wouldn't be complete without a "dragon." But that doesn't mean she's ready for such a cruel dose of reality. I'm just glad that two characters she had seen as monsters become her friends.

At times, I found myself wondering whether the story had crossed the line into true fantasy. I never did figure out how the mechanism of the Land of Almost Awake works, with six kingdoms that mostly stay the same with each visit. There's also a large dog whom Elsa identifies as a "wurse," a type of powerful guardian. It might be just a dog, but it shakes walls with its bark, eats impossibly much impossibly fast, finds adequate sustenance in chocolate, and seems to understand every spoken sentence. Does Elsa just imagine these consistencies, or is there more to her life than logic can explain?

Regardless, I appreciate a near-fantasy that's only vaguely escapist while shining a light on realistic personal troubles. It's tender, sometimes amusing, and positive in its affirmation that nobody is all good or all bad. Elsa may act nearly the same at the start and finish, but she learns what I could have stood to learn at her age.

After the story come two things I've never seen before outside of a textbook: a set of questions for discussion and a few suggestions to "enhance your book club." I doubt I'll take advantage of either, but it might be good to put these features in more books.


For obvious reasons, I have now picked up Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. This also is borrowed from my mom. So far, it's...different.
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Stephen Gilberg

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