My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry

by Fredrik Backman

Cover image

Series: Britt-Marie #1
Translator: Henning Koch
Publisher: Washington Square
Copyright: 2014
Printing: April 2016
ISBN: 1-5011-1507-3
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 372

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Elsa is seven, going on eight. She's not very good at it; she knows she's different and annoying, which is why she gets chased and bullied constantly at school and why her only friend is her grandmother. But Granny is a superhero, who's also very bad at being old. Her superpowers are lifesaving and driving people nuts. She made a career of being a doctor in crisis zones; now she makes a second career of, well, this sort of thing:

Or that time she made a snowman in Britt-Marie and Kent's garden right under their balcony and dressed it up in grown-up clothes so it looked as if a person had fallen from the roof. Or that time those prim men wearing spectacles started ringing all the doorbells and wanted to talk about God and Jesus and heaven, and Granny stood on her balcony with her dressing gown flapping open, shooting at them with her paintball gun

The other thing Granny is good at is telling fairy tales. She's been telling Elsa fairy tales since she was small and her mom and dad had just gotten divorced and Elsa was having trouble sleeping. The fairy tales are all about Miamas and the other kingdoms of the Land-of-Almost-Awake, where the fearsome War-Without-End was fought against the shadows. Miamas is the land from which all fairy tales come, and Granny has endless stories from there, featuring princesses and knights, sorrows and victories, and kingdoms like Miploris where all the sorrows are stored.

Granny and Miamas and the Land-of-Almost-Awake make Elsa's life not too bad, even though she has no other friends and she's chased at school. But then Granny dies, right after giving Elsa one final quest, her greatest quest. It starts with a letter and a key, addressed to the Monster who lives downstairs. (Elsa calls him that because he's a huge man who only seems to come out at night.) And Granny's words:

"Promise you won't hate me when you find out who I've been. And promise me you'll protect the castle. Protect your friends."

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry is written in third person, but it's close third person focused on Elsa and her perspective on the world. She's a precocious seven-year-old who I thought was nearly perfect (rare praise for me for children in books), which probably means some folks will think she's a little too precocious. But she has a wonderful voice, a combination of creative imagination, thoughtfulness, and good taste in literature (particularly Harry Potter and Marvel Comics). The book is all about what it's like to be seven, going on eight, with a complicated family situation and an awful time at school, but enough strong emotional support from her family that she's still full of stubbornness, curiosity, and fire.

Her grandmother's quest gets her to meet the other residents of the apartment building she lives in, turning them into more than the backdrop of her life. That, in turn, adds new depth to the fairy tales her Granny told her. Their events turn out to not be pure fabrication. They were about people, the many people in her Granny's life, reshaped by Granny's wild imagination and seen through the lens of a child. They leave Elsa surprisingly well-equipped to navigate and start to untangle the complicated relationships surrounding her.

This is where Backman pulls off the triumph of this book. Elsa's discoveries that her childhood fairy tales are about the people around her, people with a long history with her grandmother, could have been disillusioning. This could be the story of magic fading into reality and thereby losing its luster. And at first Elsa is quite angry that other people have this deep connection to things she thought were hers, shared with her favorite person. But Backman perfectly walks that line, letting Elsa keep her imaginative view of the world while intelligently mapping her new discoveries onto it. The Miamas framework withstands serious weight in this story because Elsa is flexible, thoughtful, and knows how to hold on to the pieces of her story that carry deeper truth. She sees the people around her more clearly than anyone else because she has a deep grasp of her grandmother's highly perceptive, if chaotic, wisdom, baked into all the stories she grew up with.

This book starts out extremely funny, turns heartwarming and touching, and develops real suspense by the end. It starts out as Elsa nearly alone against the world and ends with a complicated matrix of friends and family, some of whom were always supporting each other beneath Elsa's notice and some of whom are re-learning the knack. It's a beautiful story, and for the second half of the book I could barely put it down.

I am, as a side note, once again struck by the subtle difference in stories from cultures with a functional safety net. I caught my American brain puzzling through ways that some of the people in this book could still be alive and living in this apartment building since they don't seem capable of holding down jobs, before realizing this story is not set in a brutal Hobbesian jungle of all against all like the United States. The existence of this safety net plays no significant role in this book apart from putting a floor under how far people can fall, and yet it makes all the difference in the world and in some ways makes Backman's plot possible. Perhaps publishers should market Swedish literary novels as utopian science fiction in the US.

This is great stuff. The back and forth between fairy tales and Elsa's resilient and slightly sarcastic life can take a bit to get used to, but stick with it. All the details of the fairy tales matter, and are tied back together wonderfully by the end of the book. Highly recommended. In its own way, this is fully as good as A Man Called Ove.

There is a subsequent book, Britt-Marie Was Here, that follows one of the supporting characters of this novel, but My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry stands alone and reaches a very satisfying conclusion (including for that character).

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-01-30

Last modified and spun 2018-01-31