The Relationships We Build
In the Scandinavian region lying in the northern part of Europe is the nation of Sweden. With a long history that spanned almost 14 millennia, it has established itself as one of the most progressive nations in the world. It is also renowned for being the home of the prestigious Nobel Prizes. In the world of literature, Sweden has a long and established tradition of producing some of the world’s most recognized writers, several of whom would be awarded by the Swedish Academy with the Nobel Prize in Literature, considered as one, if not the most prestigious literary awards out there. Among these Swedish Nobel Laureates in Literature are Selma Lagerlöf (1909), the first woman to be awarded the Prize; and poets Verner von Heidenstam (1916) and Erik Axel Karlfeldt (1931). Swedish writers also pulled off one of the rarities in the Prize’s history when Eyvind Johnson and Harry Martinson were declared joint winners. The most recent awardee was Tomas Tranströmer.
The future of Swedish literature is in safe hands as a flock of Swedish writers is taking up the global stage. Among this group of Swedish writers who are gaining global recognition is Fredrik Backman. Prior to the publication of his debut novel En man som heter Ove in 2012, Backman worked as a columnist for major publications such as Helsingborgs Dagblad and Moore Magazine. A year after its publication in Swedish, En man som heter Ove was made available to anglophone readers as it was translated into English as A Man Called Ove. It was an immediate success, even occupying a place in New York Times Best Seller List for 42 weeks. It was also adapted into a film. In Backman, Sweden has found a new voice that readers across the world can look forward to.
Riding on the unprecedented success of his debut novel, Backman published a humorous collection of essays about fatherhood, Saker min son behöver veta om världen later in 2012; it was released in English as Things My Son Needs to Know About the World in 2019. In the same year when the English translation of his debut novel was released, Backman published his sophomore novel, Min mormor hälsar och säger förlåt, which was later translated into English as My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises in 2015. The book was published under the alternative title My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry in the United States.
“People in the real world always say, when something terrible happens, that the sadness and loss and aching pain of the heart will “lessen as time passes,” but it isn’t true. Sorrow and loss are constant, but if we all had to go through our whole lives carrying them the whole time, we wouldn’t be able to stand it. The sadness would paralyze us. So in the end we just pack it into bags and find somewhere to leave it.”~ Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises
At the heart of Backman’s novel is Elsa, a seven (going on eight) year-old girl. Compared to her peers, there was something about Elsa that made her stand out and she knew it. She was more precocious and smarter than most children her age. Despite her age, she was sharp-witted and had the quirk of correcting everyone’s grammar. Elsa also enjoyed reading ‘quality literature’ and was unafraid to voice out her thoughts and fight for what she believed in. For instance, she defied the odds by dressing up as Spiderman. For being different, Elsa was bullied at school, leaving her friendless. Her chronic solitude at school prompted her school headmaster to personally tell her to try and fit in with her peers.
However, Elsa was not entirely friendless. She had one friend in her grandmother who was already seventy-seven going seventy-eight. Elsa looked up to her grandmother, considering her as her superhero especially after Granny started looking after her following her parents’ divorce. Before taking care of Elsa, Granny used to be a traveling surgeon. She traveled to dangerous places all over the world to save lives. However, Elsa’s granny shared her eccentricity. Granny was whimsical and acted outrageously, showing little care about what others thought of her actions and behavior. She also had very little regard for social norms and etiquette. She had no qualms about breaking into a zoo with her granddaughter. One thing was for sure, she loved her granddaughter.
Unfortunately, Granny was in her twilight years after she was diagnosed with cancer. The crux of the novel covered the events that transpired following her death. Elsa was devastated by her Granny’s passing but she soon picked up the pieces after her Granny left behind a series of letters. These were apology letters addressed to individuals who, at one point in her life, were wronged by her grandmother, or at least that’s what Granny felt. These letters were also entrusted to Elsa for her to distribute to these people offended by Granny, chief among them the occupants of the building they were living in such as The Monster, a burly but quiet germaphobe; Alf, a sharp-tongued and curmudgeonly taxicab driver; Britt-Marie, the nervous wife of a businessman; among others. Britt-Marie would end up becoming the main character in a succeeding novel by Backman.
Thus commenced Elsa’s adventure. For an individual who was unapologetic about her actions, the letters were unusual. It was out of character, a deviation from the image of her grandmother Elsa formed in her mind. This naturally piqued Elsa’s interest. It was through these apology letters that Elsa would start to learn more about her grandmother. What was emerging was an image of a woman that was a touch away from the whimsical and funloving grandmother Elsa thought she knew. Granny was not who she projected herself to be as she was an amazing person. As Elsa unearths more about her grandmother, she was also starting to learn more about their neighbors. Each one of them had his or her own eccentricities but they also had struggles of their own.
“Most likely they told her a whole lot of damned things she wasn’t allowed to do, for a range of different reasons. But she damned well did them all the same. A few years after she was born they were still telling girls they couldn’t vote in the bleeding elections, but now the girls do it all the same. That’s damned well how you stand up to bastards who tell you what you can and and’t do. You bloody do those things all the bloody same.”~ Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises
It was through the eclectic cast of characters Backman conjured that he again demonstrated his ability for creating interesting but equally relatable characters. He imbued them with his observations of human nature. He sensibly built their profiles brick-by-brick. Through their backstories, readers were reeled in. They were characters that readers cannot only relate to but they were characters readers can laugh along with and cry along with. They were characters, despite their idiosyncrasies, who the readers will love and connect to. It was through them that Elsa’s horizon was broadening. As she establishes connections with them, there was a growing awareness about the complexities of our human nature seizing her. In a way, the novel had shades of a coming-of-age story.
While Elsa was thrown into an unexpected situation, she was still a child. Running parallel to the main storyline was a fairytale story conjured by her grandmother, These were fairytales her Granny would tell her to quell the nightmares she experienced, especially after her parent’s divorce. Land-of-Almost-Awake became Elsa’s escape from reality, a safe haven that shielded her from the darker side of humanity, a world where she met compatriots such as a giant down called a wurse. But with Elsa’s interactions with her neighbors, it eventually dawned on her that they and the characters from Granny’s stories shared several parallels, including their personalities and backstories. As the story moved forward, it was increasingly becoming clear that the world outside and the world of her imagination were one and the same.
Backman’s observation of human nature was also demonstrated in his exploration of the intricacies and complexities of the different relationships we establish with the people around us. The story was brimming with different forms of relationships, such as those between children and adults; between neighbors; and between a granddaughter and her grandmother. The story underscored how communication and connections were essential in the world we are living in. The story also fills the readers with hope. What one deems impossible between two beings the novel showed can be cultivated into something positive.
The depiction of the relationship between Elsa and Granny contained some of the novel’s most affectionate writing. They evoked the tender and often heartwarming relationships between a grandparent and a grandchild. It was a story about individuals who lie outside of what society considers normal and acceptable. It was a story about what makes people unique and about how these differences make us special and sets us apart from the rest. Granny reminds us that we need not conform to the demands of society in order to be happy. It reinforces the idea that it is never a bad idea to be different from the rest. My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises was also an ode to the art of children’s storytelling.
“A few days go by. Maybe a few weeks. But after that, one by one, other different children start tagging along with Alex and Elsa in the playground and corridors. Until there are so many of them that no one dares to chase them anymore. Until they’re an army in themselves. Because if a sufficient number of people are different, no one has to be normal.”~ Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises
Beyond the exploration of human nature and human connections, the novel grappled with loss and sorrow captured through the lenses of a precocious young girl. Death and loss were the antitheses of one of the novel’s themes, the rediscovery of a life lived beyond the scrutiny of others. A novel centered on the exploration of human nature and sensibilities, the book grappled with timely and seminal subjects such as mental health and the consequences and evils of warfare. Elsewhere, Backman reminded the readers that the book was not only for children but also for adults as he tackled mature and heavy subjects such as domestic abuse and adultery.
In his second novel, Backman relied on the strong points that elevated his debut novel. Like A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises was brimming with humor, an element that has become a staple in Backman’s oeuvre. His wit and humor, coupled with his whim, made Backman’s novel, in equal parts, entertaining and endearing. It was the seamless transitions between humor and melancholy that complements his storytelling. This recognition allows Backman to create characters readers can relate to without diluting what makes them distinct. Backman’s observations of humanity and human virtues make the novel flourish although the novel’s several plotlines obfuscate the story’s overall impact.
Nevertheless, despite its flaws, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises recognized the importance of being unique in this world. While it is great to be different, it is also important that we establish connections with those around us. Living is, after all, about connections and relationships. With Backman’s astute observations of human behavior, he was able to deliver again a quirky but endearing story. Beyond loss, grief, and human connections, the novel, was coaxing us to pursue what makes us happy, what makes us alive. If you love singing, then for all intents and purposes sing. If you feel like dancing, then let yourself lose yourself in the beat. With Granny as his vessel, Backman was subtly reminding us to love and forgive; and to fight for meaningful causes. In a story built around death, Backman was asking us to live our lives.
“Epilogues in fairy tales are also difficult. Even more difficult than endings. Because alhtough they aren’t necessarilty supposed to give you all the answers, it can be a bit unsatisfying if they stir up even more questions. Because life, once the story has ended, can be both very simple and very complicated”~ Fredrik Backman, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises
Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 21%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
It is without a doubt that Fredrik Backman has won me over despite my initial apprehensions. I was a little ambivalent about A Man Called Ove and despite ending up loving Backman’s debut novel, I was still apprehensive about Anxious People. I also loved Anxious People and Backman’s astute observations on human nature and connectivity, which were prominently featured in both Backman novels I read. Both books also made me want to read more of his works. The opportunity to read one of his works came in May this year when I made My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises the opening salvo to my May 2022 European Literature Month. I have become more confident about my understanding of Backman’s works; I knew he was going to provide me with a very compelling story. The same was true with my third Backman novel. Backman is indeed a master at creating eccentric yet compelling characters. They are characters who inhabit the vast spectrum of humanity. I loved the tender and heartwarming relationship between Granny and Elsa which reminded me of my own grandparents. Overall, it was a good book that can be read by both children and adults alike. However, it was not at par with the first two novels by Backman I read. There were parts when the story dragged and its fixation on the Land-of-Almost-Awake weighed down on me.
Author: Fredrik Backman
Translator: Henning Koch
Publishing Date: 2016
Number of Pages: 340
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…
About the Author
To learn more about the Swedish writer, click here.