Posts Tagged ‘Russell Hoban’

Another of the books I received last year for Christmas was Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. My copy a slight picador 1970s paperback, I think it was reissued by NYRB a few years ago. It was in fact a review of it on another blog which put it on my radar and my wish list.

A quirky tale of two lonely people, told in two voices, the novel is ultimately a touching portrayal of how they re-define their lives. Turtle Diary is a novel about freedom – what it means and how it’s achieved. Told in the alternate diary entries of William G and Neaera H, it is the story of an obsession; the release of sea turtles from the zoo into the English Channel.

“A turtle doesn’t have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.”

At London zoo, three sea turtles swim around their aquarium, endlessly going nowhere, reduced to swimming in circles, in their small fake sea. William G and Neaera H each visit the zoo, and independent of each other watch the turtles in their captivity. They both become obsessed with the fact of their captivity and the idea of their rescue. Neaera and William make themselves known to George Fairbairn the turtles’ head keeper, who himself seems open to the idea of setting his charges free. George is destined to have a small, but significant role in the futures of both turtles and humans. At this stage, William and Neaera have yet to meet however, their idea merely an unspoken fantasy. Through their diaries we glimpse something of their narrow existences.

William is in his mid-forties, estranged from his wife and two daughters, he now lives alone in a bedsit – a room in a shared house – with all the attendant arguments over kitchen and bathroom mess.

“A frightening thought had been growing in me. I’d always assumed that I was the central character in my own story but now it occurred to me that I might in fact be only a minor character in someone else’s.”

His fellow house mates include; Mrs Inchcliffe the landlady, Miss Neap who appears to rush in and out, always with somewhere to go – she leaves the kitchen spotless – and Mr Sandor an immigrant who William enters into a rather absurd battle with over the state the cooker is always left in. William works in a bookshop – and it is here that he and Neaera finally meet over a book about turtles.

Neaera is in her early forties, a children’s author and illustrator, she too lives alone, sometimes going days without interacting with another person. Neaera has recently introduced a water beetle in a tank into her flat, which she has been assured is a fascinating pet. She seems unaware of how isolated she has become, her head full of the past stories she has written and, now, the turtles in London zoo.

Once William and Neaera have met, the plan to release the turtles off the coast of Polperro in Cornwall takes off in earnest. George Fairbairn agrees to help them, and William’s greatest worry, seems to be the hiring and driving of a van. He builds some crates to transport the turtles, and they await the day that George has earmarked as the best one to remove the turtles without anyone noticing.   

“I think of the turtles swimming steadily against the current all the way to Ascension. I think of them swimming through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark. And I think of the sun over the water, the sun through the water, the eye holding the sun, being held by it with no thought and only the rhythm of the going, the steady wing-strokes of the flippers in the water. Then it doesn’t seem hard to believe. It seems the only way to do it, the only way in fact to be: swimming, swimming, the eye held by the sun, no sharks in the mind, nothing in the mind.”

William and Neaera do what many of us don’t do, they bring their thoughts to action – and in the very act of doing so, they start to understand something about their own lives and a small but significant shift takes place in the way in which Neaera and William see themselves and the world they are part of.

Russel Hoban’s prose is simply wonderful, many wise and quotable pieces throughout this short novel. Not an author I have read before but Hoban’s view of the world, in this unsentimental little fable will no doubt make me go back for more.

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