my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry

by Fredrik Backman, 2013

Translation, 2015, by Henning Koch

Sweet story by the author of A Man Called Ove. It’s about a 7-year old girl, Elsa, and her granny. Granny is a real character but she loves and protects Elsa and is Elsa’s only friend. But then she dies of cancer and leaves Elsa alone, except there’s a mystery of letters being found that Elsa has to deliver to the people around her. She gets to know them one-by-one and grows to love them and they love her and they are her friends. The letters are from Granny to thee individuals and in them, Granny is writing to them saying she’s sorry. As Elsa delivers these letters, she learns the stories of these people and she grows to love them, and so do we. We start out not liking these people: Britt-Marie with her desire to control everything and have it be perfect, the Monster because he is huge and dark and scary, the Wurst because he is howling and howling behind a closed door, the woman in the dark skirt who is a drunk, Alf the taxi driver, Maude and Lennart and their little dog, Samantha – Maude constantly providing cookies called Dreams, Lennart with his endless supply of coffee – you love them from the beginning; Elsa’s Mum who runs a hospital and is pregnant with “Halfie” which will be Elsa’s half-brother or sister; George, Elsa’s step-father who is nice to everyone and jogs everywhere, Elsa’s dad, who is always late picking her up from school and is a perfectionist and loves fonts and appreciates proper grammar. Then, there is an evil, evil man named Sam, who does not live in the building but is related to some of the people in the building and he is a true danger.

Granny was a doctor who helped around the globe when there were wars and natural disasters. Some of the people in the building were people she rescued who had lost everything and needed comfort. She brought them home and gave them a place to live. It turns out, she owns the whole building and all of the flats are occupied by people she helped and loved, but there are things that happened that Granny feels the need to say ‘sorry‘ for after her death, but mainly so that Elsa will befriend them and realize she is not abandoned and alone.

I loved little Elsa, 7 years old almost 8. I loved the way Backman always starts out his books with characters that you don’t really like but then end up loving once you get to know them and know their story. We do that in this book by the letters Elsa has to deliver one-by-one and, in turn, learns about the people occupying the flats, hears their stories which mirror the fairy tales that Granny used to tell her, and we come to understand and love them. The Wurst is a big black dog that Elsa starts out very afraid of because she can only hear him howling and howling behind a closed door after Granny dies. Then, she brings him Dreams (cookies) and they become friends and she protects him and he protects her. It’s beautiful and sweet. The cover of the book is precious and depicts Elsa and the Wurst.

Sweet, precious, beautiful book.

Here are some quotes:

“The thing is, in Miamas [one of the kingdoms in the Land-of-Almost-Awake] you don’t get present on your birthday. You give presents. Preferably something you have at home and are very fond of, which you then give to someone you like even more. That’s why everyone in Miamas looks forward to other people’s birthdays, and that’s the origin of the expression “What do you get from someone who has everything?” When the enphants took this fairy tale into the real world, someone here managed to get the wrong end of the stick, of course, making it “What do you GIVE to someone who has everything?”

Here’s a conversation with the woman in the black skirt a short time after Elsa had delivered her letter and the woman starts reading Harry Potter books at Elsa’s recommendation:

“”I like him a lot too, that’s what I wanted to say. It’s been a long time since I had such an amazing reading experience. You almost never do, once you grow up, things are at their peak when you’re a child and then it’s all downhill from there…well…because of the cynicism, I suppose. I just wanted to thank you for reminding me of how things used to be.””

This woman in the dark skirt, it ends up, lost her husband and two sons in the Tsunami in Indonesia. Granny was there helping people and tried to comfort the woman and eventually brought her home to live in a flat in the building. Once Elsa knows the woman’s story, they have this conversation:

“”Do you believe in life after death?”

‘The woman looks up at her.

“That’s a difficult question.”

“I mean, you know, do you believe in God?” asks Elsa.

“Sometimes it’s hard to believe in God,” answers the woman.

“Because you wonder why God didn’t stop the tsunami?”

“Because I wonder why there are tsunamis at all.”

‘Elsa nods.

“I saw someone in a film once say, ‘Faith can move mountains,'” Elsa goes on, without knowing why, maybe mainly because she doesn’t want to lose sight of the woman before she has time to ask the question she really wants to ask.

“So I hear,” says the woman.

‘Elsa shakes her head.

“But you know that’s actually true! Because it comes from Miamas, from a giant called Faith. She was so strong it was insane. And she could literally move mountains!”

Elsa is explaining to Alf, the taxi-driver, that Iron Man has a type of pace-maker, like him:

‘It’s snowing again, and Elsa decides that even if people she likes have been shits on earlier occasions, she has to learn to carry on liking them. You’d quickly run out of people if you had to disqualify all those who at some point have been shits. She thinks that this will have to be the moral of this story. Christmas stories are supposed to have morals.”

Granny leaves the apartment building, which she won in a poker game, to Elsa, knowing Elsa will never agree to sell it, so the people in the building will be able to stay there forever.