Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban ~ 1975. This edition: Picador, 1977. Softcover. ISBN: 0-330-25050-7. 191 pages.
My rating: 9/10.
The only thing better than looking forward to a read with a cozy preconception as to what the story will bring, and being satisfied with your expectation, is to be blanket-tossed up in the air by a book that tightens up and bounces you unexpectedly into a very different direction, leaving you to freewheel for a while, scrambling for a sense of where you’re going, then catching you and returning you, more or less gently, to solid ground. Turtle Diary is that second kind of book.
The plot is easily condensed. Two middle-aged and currently unattached Londoners, William G. and Neaera H., both struggling with a stagnant state of being, visit the Zoo and are, separately, attracted to the sea turtle tank and the stoic inhabitants within. Musing on the cosmic injustice of these far-roaming creatures being confined to a tiny volume of water, William and Neaera each consider the possibility of somehow freeing the turtles back into the sea. As each of them in turn carry on their separate narrations, we see that their thoughts are uncannily similar, both regarding the turtles and other aspects of their solitary existences, and their relationships (or lack thereof) to those around them. Inevitably William and Neaera meet, speak, share their turtle-liberation impulses, and formulate a practical plan to carry it out, helped by the like-minded zookeeper. Can you guess where we’re going from here? Two lonely people, sharing a joint goal, yearning desperately for love…?
Well, abundant blessings to Russell Hoban. He faces up to and jumps the clichés quite nicely, and while his characters do ultimately find themselves in a different and presumably better emotional place, it’s not their ultimate fate to rest in each others’ arms.
There is so much packed into these strange and wonderful book that the whole turtle thing turns out to be merely a unifying theme, a subplot. This is not as much a book about animal liberation as it is about human liberation. Or, as William G. would doubtless remind us, perhaps there isn’t any difference between the two, humans being just another sort of animal, after all. The trick being to find a state of existence where one can satisfy one’s biological and emotional needs, whether one is sea turtle (source of sea turtle soup) or William G. (source of William G. soup) or octopus or oyster-catcher or water beetle or zookeeper or Balkan expatriate…
It’s so strange (and wonderful) that I picked up an old edition of this book completely at random some weeks ago, merely on the strength of the author’s name. And yes, I already knew who Russell Hoban was – what reading parent could not miss the identity of the originator of the adorably contrary Frances? And of course The Mouse and His Child, which is, most emphatically, not a book for small children, or possibly any age of child, despite the repeated references to it as a “children’s classic”. Whoever has designated it as such has perhaps not read the actual book. But I digress.
As I was saying, I picked up Turtle Diary completely serendipitously, only finding out when another blogger mentioned that he too was reading it that it has been recently reissued by New York Review Books, and is currently receiving much popular press as literary readers “rediscover” Hoban-the-writer-of-adult-fiction.
Without further ado, and without wasting my words in attempted repetition of what Guy Savage of the excellent His Futile Preoccupations book blog has already said, I refer you to that review:
Guy states that this might well be one of his best books of the year. I know it will be high up on my own list.
And on the strength of Turtle Diary, I will be searching out my copy of The Mouse and His Child, which I acquired when my children were small, thinking that it was a children’s story – it was, after all, shelved in the juvenile section of the bookstore. It was tucked away when an initial reading showed a deep unsuitability for the highly imaginative, nightmare-prone younglings of the household, despite the message of unconditional love yadda yadda yadda. Now that the children in question are in their advanced teen years and decidedly bombproof in their reading habits they might even be interested in exploring Hoban’s adult works for themselves. The dystopian Riddley Walker sounds like something my son in particular might enjoy; must seek that one immediately.
Russell Hoban. If indeed his works are coming in for a time of resurgence, it is because they richly deserve it. Check him out.
Edited July 24, 2013 to add this link to another brilliant review: Seeing the World Through Books – Mary Whipple Reviews Turtle Diary