One of the most emotive lines in Fredrik Backman’s new novella, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is the exchange between Grandpa and Noah, as they reminisce on the collective memories they have of Grandma and what she meant to both of them. Noah asks his grandfather a simple question, but it’s one that stirs a plethora of beautiful images about a long-departed love, not withholding Backman’s signature humor:
“How did you fall in love with her?” the boy asks.
Grandpa’s hands land with one palm on his own knee and one on the boy’s.
“She got lost in my heart, I think. Couldn’t find her way out. Your grandma always had a terrible sense of direction. She could get lost on an escalator.”
Quirky and unconventional characters are customary in Backman’s novels. The best-selling Swedish author introduced us most recently to an obsessive-compulsive middle-aged woman named Britt-Marie, who is forced to dramatically alter her life after her husband leaves her for another woman. Before that, Backman surprised us with A Man Called Ove (most recently adapted to a feature film), the story of a grumpy insufferable man who teaches us a lesson not to judge too harshly by appearances alone.
However, with his latest work Backman admits that this novella wasn’t initially meant to be published at all. “I never meant for you to read it, to be quite honest,” Backman states in a short introduction to the story. “But it turned into a small tale of how I’m dealing with slowly losing the greatest minds I know, about missing someone who is still here, and how I wanted to explain it all to my children. I’m letting it go now, for what it’s worth.” These words by Backman are the perfect prelude to this heart-moving story about aging, loss, love, memories and family.
Grandpa and Noah sit on a bench, talking about the many things they have in common with each other and a bit about life itself. The bench happens to be in a square that begins to shrink significantly in size as the days and weeks go by. It doesn’t take long to understand that Grandpa and Noah are saying goodbye, that the bench is inside Grandpa’s mind and the diminishing square represent his memories, significantly becoming fainter as his body begins to succumb to the cruelty of senility and aging. The struggle to keep Grandpa’s memories alive both by Noah and his father Ted are in contradiction with the need to finally let Grandpa go with a certain sensation of tranquility.
Backman is nothing if not resourceful when it comes to presenting images that won’t easily leave us even after we’ve turned the last page. Grandpa’s memories are illustrated in many forms; tall crumbling buildings for the ones that are barely still there, and buildings in ruin for the ones that have been lost forever. Noah and Grandpa share a love for mathematics, and particularly for the infinite beauty of the number Pi, which they enjoy repeating to each other in almost blissful companionship.
Among Grandpa’s dwindling memories are those of his son Ted’s childhood and the little time he spent with him as a child. Regret and sadness dance in circles around Grandpa as he barely recognizes his own son, and sees him more a a child Noah’s age than the man he’s become. Ted too has regrets, for not having the chance to really know the father who was always too busy to spare him much attention, the father who now barely remembers him at all.
But perhaps the most significant conversations are those between Grandpa and Grandma, or better said, with his memory of her. A love that begun when they were young and lasted a lifetime, Grandma convinces him that he was a good father to Ted even though Grandpa is convinced otherwise. She is his last grasp on the remembrance of true love and how their marriage worked on an almost ideal tandem despite their many differences in character.
A short story that includes eye-catching illustrations in the style of Patrick Süskind’s Mr. Summer’s Story, in And Every Morning The Way Home Gets Longer and Longer Fredrick Backman doesn’t reveal one quirky character with a life lesson to be had. Rather we meet a witty old man, the memory of his wife, his beloved grandson, and his distanced son who come together to embody the most precious memory that anyone can have in a lifetime: that of love and learning how to say goodbye.