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Turtle Diary

A poignant novel of two lost souls and a dream of freedom, from the author of "Riddley Walker."

July 11, 2013

Turtle Diary, by Russell Hoban, New York Review Books, 208 pages

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By Rebecca Barry for The Barnes and Noble Review

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For a certain generation of readers Russell Hoban is best known as the creator of precocious badgers, kindhearted otters, and optimistic moles. Some may recall favorites from his Frances the Badger series of seven picture books published between 1960 and 1972. For me, "Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas," published by Parents Magazine Press in 1971, was the ticket into Hoban’s enchanting world. In that book, down-on-their-luck otters in Frogtown Hollow compete in the annual Christmas talent show, hoping to win enough money to buy each other real store-bought gifts.

The story was adapted for television by Jim Henson’s fledgling band of Muppeteers in 1977, and the movie premiered on HBO in December of 1978 and later aired on ABC. I’m sure I’ve watched it hundreds of times in the past 35 years, a holiday tradition forced on my two children, for whom I also purchased a first edition a few years back. I've also pressed Hoban's "The Mole Family’s Christmas" (1969) on my digital-generation kids.

 All this to say that my literary knowledge of Russell Hoban was, I suspect, like so many readers, limited to the children’s books he wrote and which were illustrated by his first wife, Lillian Hoban. Turtle Diary, a misleading title in this context, is not for the preschool set. It is an insightful and droll novel about mid-life discontents, entirely timely for the readers who grew up on his books and who now have children and crises of their own. Out of print for several years, this new edition of "Turtle Diary," with an introduction by Ed Parks, gives us a chance to discover a different Hoban – not the earlier children’s author and not the later fantasy novelist – and to be charmed by what’s in between.      

The form of "Turtle Diary" consists of alternating journal entries – one by William G., a 45-year-old bookshop clerk, the other by Neaera H., a 43-year-old children’s book author – that mirror one another in a sort of reflective he said/she said about shared events, feelings, and perceptions. They worry about ocean pollution, invasive seaweed species, and whale and sea bird slaughter. It turns out these two lonely but likeminded strangers are both adrift – until the idea occurs to them (independently) that freeing the large sea turtles from the London Zoo might be the catalyst for personal change. 

 William is living in a rooming house, so estranged from his former life that he doesn’t know where his children, aged 18 and 20, are, or if his ex-wife has remarried. The beach pebble in his pocket picked up on a family vacation in Antibes is a constant reminder of that life as an account executive, homeowner, and father. He repeatedly visits the zoo he despises, picks fights with his untidy neighbors, and frets over his mental health. Of suicide, he writes, “I had been thinking of it right enough, I often do, always have the idea of it huddled like a sick ape in a corner of my mind.”

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