“Suppose,” I said, “some sort of turtle freak decided to steal the turtles and put them back in the ocean. What would he need for the job?’
Ed Park’s introduction to the wonderful novel, Turtle Diary, written by Russell Hoban (1925-2011), tells us that this is “one of the great novels of middle age,” for not only are the dual protagonists two middle-aged lonely people, but they each understand the sort of old age that awaits them just around the corner. Hoban, who was an American ex-pat, lived in Britain and a large part of his work was written for children. It can’t be coincidence, then, that one of the two narrators, Neaera is an author and illustrator (as Hoban was) of children’s books while the other narrator is William, a divorced man (as Hoban was at one point), estranged from his children, who lives in a small boarding house and works at a bookshop. Right away, of course, we know these are different times; the boarding house is very respectable and full of solitary characters with bizarre habits that evoke the shabby gentility of Muriel Spark.
The alternating narrators are William G. and Neaera H, both in their 40s, both living in London, and both drawn to the plight of the sea turtles who swim endlessly in zoo tanks they have long since outgrown. These two lonely, solitary people approach the zoo and the turtles and each feels a connection to the trapped animals imprisoned in cells far too small and endlessly swimming to a destination they will never reach. After looking at the sea turtles, William is depressed:
Sea turtles. two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean. Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean couldn’t be said.
And here’s Neaera’s reaction:
There they were in the golden-green murk of their little box of sea, their little bedsitter of ocean. One almost expected a meter in the corner of it where they had to put in 5p to keep the water circulating. Thousands of miles in their speechless eyes, submarine skies in their flipper wings. no beach of course, no hot sand for the gravid females to crawl up to, to lay their eggs.
William and Neaera exist in separate lives and yet their eerie connection is made through parallel thought processes & universal consciousness. In the earlier quotes, for example, William notes that the turtle tank is a space “no bigger than my room,” while Neaera, who at that point doesn’t even know William exists, notes their tank is a “little bedsitter of ocean.” These sorts of connected thoughts occur repeatedly throughout the novel, so that we understand why William and Neaera, two very different people, both come to the separate conclusion that the turtles must be liberated from captivity. It is as though some strong force drives them to the zoo and then compels them to act.
Although William and Neaera are both distressed by the plight of the turtles, they are drawn back repeatedly. Inevitably, they notice one another, and then one day, Neaera walks into the bookshop where William works, and while both characters feel a desire to walk away from the plight of the turtles, they discover a deeply rooted moral obligation to release them back into the sea. Neaera understands William so well that he’s not entirely comfortable with her, but there again he can’t deny either the “eerie” connection they have, or the idea that “there’s another one of me locked up alone in a brain with the same thoughts.
Turtle Diary is a story of Animal Liberation published back in 1975 when the world had an entirely different attitude towards the term, but the book is primarily the story of two lonely people who feel driven to do something about a situation that disturbs their moral universe, and the big question is: will William and Neaera also be liberated by the experience? And from what do these characters need to liberated? Delightful alternating narratives reveal two lonely Londoners who deal with their own demons: William tormented and intimidated by the flagrant, daily selfishness of another lodger, and Neaera, the author of the successful Gillian Vole series who agonizes that she’s “caged” and exploited a water beetle who lives in a fish tank in her flat. She considers the beetle for story material. Possibly something along the lines of Victoria Beetle, Secret Agent:
It was past three in the morning and I was staring into the green murk of Madame Beetle’s tank. The plants are all shrouded in long green webs of algae, there are white and ghostly bits of old meat hanging around about blooming with mould, the sides of the tank are very dim. It’s like the setting for a tiny horror film but Madame Beetle doesn’t seem to mind. I can’t think now how it could have occurred to me that I might write a story about her. Who am I to use the mystery of her that way? Her swimming is better than my writing and she doesn’t expect to get paid for it. If someone were to buy me, have me shipped in a tin with air-holes, what would I be a specimen of ?
Turtle Diary is ostensibly the story of two people appalled at the living conditions of turtles, but this is ultimately a story about middle age, loneliness and despair. While the sea turtles swim endlessly in a tank searching for a beach that will not appear, our characters live in a state of imprisonment fueled by self-doubt, loneliness, and an inability to connect. Yet who is there to connect with? Neaera’s oily neighbour, “unemployed actor” Webster de Vere, a shark in the human ocean, appears to “live[s] off old ladies.” And there’s something decidedly predatory about his eyes which look “as if he’s pawned his real ones and is wearing paste.” William, in his boarding house, has to share a bathroom with the other tenants including the mysterious, Sandor who leaves the cooker greasy after preparing his foul-smelling breakfasts and trails pubic hair behind after using the bath. While William & Neaera’s lives aren’t terrible, they are terrifyingly ordinary, and Neaera mulls over the question of whether or not people would choose to lead the lives they find themselves locked into:
It occurred to me then to imagine lives packaged and labeled and ranged on shelves waiting to be bought. I couldn’t think of any likely brand names right off except Brief Candle. And what if the ingredients were listed on the box? Many lives would go unsold, they’d have to discontinue some of the range. Sorry we don’t stock that life any more, there was no demand for it really. Hard Slog for example or Dreary Muddle, how many would they sell a year? On the other hand Wealth and Fame would move briskly even with a Government health Warning on the packet.
Middle age can be a trying time for those who find themselves washed up on this shore, so lest I give the wrong impression about Turtle Diary, the book is full of playful humour. Some of the humour comes from Neaera’s marvelous observations of various zoo animals, but some of it comes from William’s slips:
The sea turtles are on my mind all the time. I can feel something building up in me, feel myself becoming strange and unsafe. Today one of those women who never know titles came into the shop. They are the source of Knightsbridge lady soup and they ask for a good book for a nephew or something new on roses for a gardening husband. This one wanted a novel, ‘something for a good read at the cottage.’ I offered her Procurer to the King by Fallopia Bothways. Going like a bomb with the menopausal set. She gasped, and I realized I’d actually spoken the thought aloud: ‘Going like a bomb with the menopausal set.’
She went quite red. ‘”What did you say?” she said.
“Going like a bomb, it’s the best she’s written yet,” I said, and looked very dim.
Turtle Diary is a unique book. I’ll be exploring more Russell Hoban shortly as this book makes my best of the year list. There’s a sort of magic at work here–almost as if Neaera and William are animals in the zoo observed by us the readers who’ve paid the price of admission to study a not-so-rare-species. I can see the cage plaque now: Middle Aged Lonely Londoners in Their Natural Habitat.