Humanity is, by and large, not very good at dealing with anyone or anything that steps outside the accepted norm.
Square peg in a square hole? Yes, thank you. Square peg in a round hole. not so much, no.
It’s fertile ground on which to base a novel, and Fredrik Backman, a Swedish blogger who rose to fame on the back of his first novel A Man Called Ove, makes for the most of it with the appropriately quirkily named My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises.
This charmingly insightful book, which dances merrily between humourous observation and deeply-affecting commentary on the way being different is lambasted rather than lauded most of the time, is all about people who simply don’t fit in.
Chief among them is the grandmother of the title, a woman who spent her life as a doctor in hotspots around the world, and her granddaughter Elsa, to whom she is devoted, who is a Harry Potter devotee and rather good at running, having to spend most of her time at school escaping bullies without number.
Neither Granny nor Elsa are terribly good at playing by the rules, keeping quiet when social convention dictate they say nothing, or following the rest of the sheep, dismissed as “muppets” by the twosome, obediently into the paddock of life.
“All fairy stories take their life from the fact of being different. ‘Only different people change the world,’ Granny used to say. ‘No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.’ (P. 82)
This, as you can well imagine, earns them little kudos, for the most part, and quite a bit of opprobrium.
Granny, naturally has had far longer to challenge the powers that be, becoming a doctor when women weren’t supposed to pursue it as a vocation, and flaunting just about social nicety going such as not shooting people with paintball guns and flinging excreta at the police, and so she is well-versed in schooling Elsa, a pupil by aptitude and necessity, in how to live life when you’re different.
She does this in the most charming of ways by taking Elsa at every available opportunity to the six kingdoms of Land-of-Almost-Awake where differences are celebrated, magic and wonder and some darkness abound, and fairytales are a currency far more valuable than goods or money.
It’s an acknowledgement by Granny that sometimes reality is best handled by escaping it, or at least by dealing with it in an allegorical sense.
It certainly works for Elsa, who though she can’t fully push away the effects of being a lone child of divorce – her mother is the very pinnacle of order and convention – or being constantly bullied and teased at school, is able to at least get a grip on the fact that being different is not wrong and that she has every right to be the person she is no matter what others might say.
What sets My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises apart from many other books that seek to address the vexed topic of bullying and being singled out because you don’t fit the generally agreed-upon mould, is that it expertly uses both humour and some fairly serious discussion of the issues to get its point across.
The entire narrative, where Elsa must go on a grand adventure to deliver letters saying “Sorry” to all of the eclectic neighbours that live in her building, all of whom are more connected than they or Elsa realise, and who are odd or different in their own way despite appearances to the contrary, is washed through with quirkiness and seriousness, and a good dose of supernatural perspective courtesy of the Land-of-Almost-Awake.
Elsa comes to realise as her adventures unfold that she’s not alone in being different.
It’s empowering for the young determined and often fearless young girl – though not always which is why Granny assigns an eclectic array of people to look out for her – that she is part of a family of misfits, and that the fantasy lands her Granny conjured into being are every bit as real in their intent, values and life lessons as anything in the real world around her.
The land, and its magical kingdoms, of course don’t exist, having been dreamt up by Granny not just for Elsa’s benefit but for a host of other people Granny assisted in her unconventional life, but as far as Elsa is concerned, it’s all very real and the only way to deal with a reality which is often unpleasant, confounding and almost impossible to deal with if you handle it head-on.
Backman clearly has some experience not fitting in completely because he writes with genuine understanding, which anyone who has been bullied or harassed, such as yours truly, will immediately identify with and be deeply moved by.
There is a rich and honest empathy percolating throughout, and Backman’s inventive use of beautifully-expressed fairytale imagery throughout lends this occasionally grim tale a great deal of levity and accessibility that many other more serious works sometimes lack.
“‘She was the love of my life, Elsa. She was the love of many men’s lives. Women as well, actually.’
‘Were you hers?’
Marcel pauses. He doesn’t look angry. Or bitter. Just slightly jealous.
‘No,’ he says. ‘That wasyou. It was always you, dear Elsa.'” (P. 323)
My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises will alternately have you laughing, nodding with wry recognition or seared to the heart but it’s all part of an organic whole, very much like life itself, where reality and imagination often coexist and nothing is cut-and-dried, or as simple as we like.
That there is a happy ending of sorts doesn’t detract for one minute from the book’s willingness to look life in the eye and accuse it of all kinds of weird contrariness and downright cruelty, but also acknowledge that being different is often the solution to life’s many vexing questions rather the problem (difference is seen as a superhero power by Granny and Elsa) that society often paints it to be.
Never shying away from addressing the hard issues, My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises is a joy to read, even at its hardest and darkest, gleefully willing to thumb its nose at convention, to celebrate those who are different and unique, sometimes fantastical view of the world and to encourage anyone who has ever felt that they don’t fit in that there is indeed a place for them and that it’s a rich, rewarding and endlessly wonderful one at that.