Russell Hoban was an American expat writer who lived in London from 1969 until his death in 2011. You may be familiar with some of his work already. He is the author of the Frances the Badger series, you know, Bedtime for Frances and all the rest that follow. But did you know that he was also a prolific author of books for adults too some of them by all reports, pretty strange. Turtle Diary is not strange but it is quirky. Or rather the characters are quirky.
The novel is narrated in alternating diary chapters by two forty-something Londoners stuck in a bit of a midlife funk. William G. used to have a family and a career in advertising but now he is divorced, working at a bookstore and living in a boarding house. Neaera H. is the author of a number of successful children’s books featuring the character Gillian Vole but she’s lost her inspiration for the series and hasn’t written anything in a while. She lives alone, never married. In search of new stories she buys herself a water beetle and tries to imagine great adventures for Madame Beetle but she can’t find a spark.
Separately, William and Neaera venture to the London zoo and there discover the sea turtles, huge and swimming gracefully through their green, fake ocean to nowhere. The turtles begin to haunt them both and each begins to wonder if they could rescue the turtles and deliver them to the ocean. Neaera wanders into the bookstore where William works looking for information about sea turtles. They each realize they are thinking turtle thoughts, that each wants to set the turtles free. They hatch a plan. With the help of the zoo keeper who cares for the turtles and who has also petitioned to have the turtles set free, William and Neaera take the turtles to Polperro and launch them into the ocean. This happens about two-thirds of the way through the book. There is more that follows.
Because the turtles aren’t just turtles. In rescuing the turtles William and Neaera are also hoping to rescue themselves. The turtles are always just turtles, they don’t have to try and be anything else. The turtles have life all figured out. They swim, navigate to the beach where they breed, and then swim some more. Not having to think or figure out life but simply always knowing one’s purpose is appealing for William and Neaera, two people who are lost and lonely. But rescuing the turtles does not come with a big change. William tells the zoo keeper later,
Launching the turtles didn’t launch me. You can’t do it with turtles
But while the launching doesn’t bring about a dramatic change, both of them eventually realize they are different. They think about the turtles, swimming, swimming. They will never know if the turtles make it to their destination. But just thinking of them swimming free in the ocean is enough. They realize the turtles could not do the swimming for them. William and Neaera will need to figure out what their own swimming is. And that is now ok. Even if what that swimming might be is still unknown, each of them feels like something is emerging. Says Neaera:
I was waiting for something now and the waiting was pleasant. I was waiting for the self inside me to come forward to the boundaries from which it had long ago withdrawn. Life would be less quiet and more dangerous, life is risky on the borders.
The book doesn’t end like you would expect it to, however. The story is, as Neaera says, “the back of things” and as William notes, not a charming film starring Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith which is only charming because so many of the details of real life are left out.
A quiet, swimming sort of book, Turtle Diary is also very funny. When William first sees the turtles there is a plaque that explains that the Green Turtle is the source of turtle soup. William’s response to that is:
I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that’s a lot of soup walking around.
And a few paragraphs later he describes his boss as, “Mr. Meager, manager of the shop and the source of Meager soup.” Ha!
Turtle Diary is such a delightful book. On the front side it is a simple story, on the back of it there is much to notice and think about. It was my June NYRB subscription book and, I think, my favorite of them all thus far. Of course, I am also quite partial to turtles so I was primed to like this story. I plan on reading more of Hoban’s grown-up books sometime. Riddley Walker is supposed to be especially good. Anyone read it?