There is a little bit of all of us in Greta Jellings. Maybe in her tendency to talk too much, or her nervousness about meeting people. It could be in her knowing that she looks shifty to security cameras and in front of officials. Or perhaps it is in her concerns about her body size (“Mirrors were such a disappointment”), her fearfulness, or how her head is full of the admonishing voice of Nora, her dead mother. Or is it in “Her inability to act in synchrony with her heart”?
Greta is living a life “ruled by etiquette”, she is proud of her decades of loyal service to the same small business. Her best friend is Marilyn Munroe, a chicken, even more so after her neighbours move to a sterile high-tech home where the only book to be found it one on the virtues of tidying up. Greta loves books, she takes advice from Paddington Bear, Madeline, Dian Fossey, Kenneth Grahame. She is a technophobe, suspicious of mobile phones and microwave ovens. She is naïve, she has never travelled, she has a therapist, and at heart she is lonely, and sad that she lives in an age where touch is “… the prerogative of lovers and parents and pets.”
Walter very nearly ousts Marylin Munroe from her place in Greta’s hierarchy, he is her best friend, they love each other, but Walter is gay, living with AIDS and has cancer. Greta takes all this in her stride – whenever she has allowed herself the thrill of anticipating that things will work out for her, reality has always intervened. After Walter dies, he leaves her a mystery trip, one of indeterminate length, where each destination will be revealed on the eve of the next leg of the journey. For Greta “Spontaneous arrangements were just too stressful,” but in memory of Walter, and with the encouragement of Holly, her new neighbour, Greta cuts all ties and takes off.
Addressed to Greta takes us on Greta’s mystery trip, we see the details of the streets of New York, London, and Kigali through her eyes, from taxis, trains, subways. We take her first flight with her, we are embarrassed for her, astounded by her, and eventually come to agree with the flight attendant on that first flight, that “The world needs people like you.” Her mantra for her journey is from one of Walter’s letters, “No one is watching.” And when her fears, mostly stemming from sensationalist news items and movies, allow her, she takes that mantra as permission to push her boundaries. Yet she still finds “It was one thing to speak her mind, quite another to retain composure in the wake of it.”
“As for Greta Jellings. Who was she? That depended on who was asking.” She is charming, disarming, and hilarious, she is also racist, prejudiced and a total wuss. Her redemption is in her ability to learn, to overcome her naivety and gauche reactions, some of which are laugh-out-loud, such as arriving at her Kigali hotel, “Good afternoon and welcome, madam. She curtsied. Why on earth had she curtsied?” And yet there is a lot that is tragic about Greta’s encounters, such as the forgiveness displayed by the Rwandans after the genocide, a forgiveness she can’t find in herself for the atrocities she reads about, or those closer to home – a gay son rejected, and gay friend beaten, a gay father denied access to his child.
The person Greta might have been when travelling is demonstrated in her fellow travellers, their colonial arrogance, their clumsy unthinking attempts at being charitable. In Rwanda Greta continues to react disproportionality to events, and chimpanzees, with very amusing consequences, but she also realises how many of her fears are groundless and pointless, “Greta fretted not infrequently about what the turnout would be to her funeral.” Addressed to Greta is a novel about a woman discovering things about her family, about the people she loves, and about herself. And it poses the question, will she change because of this new knowledge, or slip back into her comfortable “conveyer belt of commitments”?
Addressed to Greta is also a love letter to New Zealand, a country Greta realises is “a treasure she was hankering for.” The book reads as though written by someone who loves Aotearoa and who wants others to as well. Sussman has made Greta, although from an English family, a born and bred Kiwi (although she would never have had a hamster, she might have had a guinea pig), and as well as sending her on a rite of passage to enable her to re-consider her situation, priorities and friendships, the journey also leads her to a deeper appreciation of her own country, “It felt good to be home.”
There are big questions asked in Addressed to Greta, such as “What is it about man’s intolerance to difference?”, and there are warnings about not jumping too quickly into judgement of others. It is a delightful read, although the narrative frayed a little bit towards the end for me. But most of it is funny and charming, and often sad. The most treasured message I took away was how important it is to not squander the privilege of choice. As Greta would blurt, “Gee whiz!”, read this book, I think you will love it as much as I did.