Something in Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry made me think of the classic Truman Capote short story, “A Christmas Memory.” You have a young child and an older relative who are each other’s best (or only) friend. It’s essentially the two of them against the world until they are confronted by larger forces — in the Capote story, Those Who Know Best; and in Backman’s 2015 novel, by the grandmother’s death and the puzzle she leaves behind.
This novel was translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch. Whenever I read a translation (whether it’s the Bible or anything else), the language purist in me always wonders how differently it read in its original language, and how the author meant for this word or that phrase to function. At no point does the novel read as if the translator wasn’t quite sure how to convey something in English. The language feels so authentic to the story and characters that, if I could read Swedish, I’m guessing it would be spot on.
Elsa is seven going on forty. She is different. Her teachers say she needs to try harder to fit in, and she is relentlessly bullied by other children. She lives in an apartment building with her mum and stepdad, who have a baby (whom she calls Halfie) on the way. Mum’s mum, Granny, lives in the same building. She is the kind of crazy that climbs zoo fences, shoots paintball guns at door-to-door evangelists, and more. You wonder how she’s functioned in the world for her seventy-some years, but this is a retired medical doctor who has traveled the world and saved untold lives. The building’s other tenants are an assortment of scary, mysterious, or annoying neighbors. So it seems like any urban apartment building in the world.
Granny and Elsa have their own secret language, one that stems from Granny’s stories of the mythical Kingdom of Miamas and the Land-of-Almost-Awake, places where being different is standard operating procedure. Theirs is a life that makes sense, if only to the two of them.
Then Granny dies, leaving her granddaughter with a series of apology letters to deliver. In the midst of her grief and disorientation, Elsa now has an important job to do.
Her mission takes her first to a reportedly vicious dog and a germ-phobic loner who will become the Scarecrow and Tin Man to her Dorothy. Or the Ron and Hermione to her Harry, as Elsa is a Harry Potter fan. Then, one by one, she delivers the letters and discovers not only the stunning connections among her building’s oddball residents, but their connection to Granny — and to Elsa. Their stories are much like Granny’s tales of Miamas, which at first “only seemed like disconnected fairy tales without a context, told by someone who needed her head examined. It took years before Elsa understood that they belonged together. All really good stories work like this.”
Pearls and secret family recipes are great, but a sense of connection to what was, what is, and what can be is one of the best things a grandmother can leave her granddaughter. Granny, with her messy, maladjusted life, bats this one out of the park, as does Backman with this book.