A poignant novel of two lost souls and a dream of freedom, from the author of "Riddley Walker."
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Neaera, whom William describes as “a more or less arty-intellectual-looking lady,” is more stable, though she daydreams about taking a sledgehammer to the thick aquarium glass at the zoo. She appears dazed by writer’s block, and her attempts to write a story about her newly acquired water-beetle are failing. “I have not got another furry-animal picnic or birthday party in me,” she writes. “I’d written them but there no longer seemed a place in their world for me.”Skip to next paragraph
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Her successful "Gillian Vole’s Christmas" is suspiciously similar to Hoban’s own earlier title, prompting readers to consider the autobiographical nature of "Turtle Diary." In 1969, the American Hobans and their four children journeyed to London, and when the 30-year marriage ended in 1975, Russell remained in London (he married a woman who worked in a bookshop, and he had three children with her).
The break does roughly line up with his literary output; in the '60s and early '70s, Hoban wrote mainly for children. While he never quit that, he turned his attention to novels for adults from the mid-'70s onward. "Turtle Diary" (1975) was one of the first, while his award-winning "Riddley Walker" (1980) took its place as one of the signature works of post-apocalyptic fiction. "Turtle Diary" enjoyed some further attention when Harold Pinter’s screenplay was adapted into a 1985 film starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson.
"Turtle Diary" is one of only two novels Hoban wrote without any hint of the science fiction, fantasy, or magical realism that would dominate his later work. But its major themes of freedom, rebirth, and self-consciousness arguably make it the turning point in Hoban’s career. William and Neaera want to return three turtles to the ocean and, and in doing so, restore the laws of the natural world and re-order the domestic (and artificial) world of dirty bathtubs and estranged children.
Hoban, too, wanted to make a break. He had – in large part – moved on from the furry animals and laid down brilliant lines like, “Miss Neap’s lavender scent marches up and down the walls like a skeleton in armour.” He wasn’t going to flail and wade against the current, he was going to catch a wave and sail safely out of middle age.
But can William and Neaera? Are they capable of allowing the magic of the turtle rescue to transform them? Thankfully, Hoban spurns the pat ending (this is no "Free Willy") and wallops the reader with the kind of intensity that asks more questions than it answers: What is the significance of all the stones and pebbles in the story? What do we make of its images of devolution and return to the ocean? Is the novel, at its heart, an ecological treatise?
Even William ponders if he has been the central character in his own story; if he hasn’t been, then whose story is it? Perhaps it’s all of ours.