Last week I read Russell Hoban’s The Turtle Diary (1975) which I quite liked. It’s an understated study of loneliness and a search for meaning in London in the 1970s, and many of its concerns remain of unwelcome relevance to today’s Londoners, however drastically the city has changed in the past four decades. The novel’s protagonists are two solitary characters, William H., a divorced man working at a bookshop, and Neaera, who writes and illustrates children’s literature. In an unlikely coincidence, both become convinced that they need personally to liberate sea turtles at the London aquarium. Despite having hardly spoken to one another, they also simultaneously intuit that the other is having precisely the same thought.
Rather than, as might be expected, bringing them together, the protagonists’ uncanny similarities seem to terrify them, and while their shared endeavour does bring some vitality to their otherwise painfully mundane and isolated lives, it is not a straightforward scene of redemption. It’s not that the act fails to satisfy them, but rather that their struggle was never one of attainment to begin with. Instead, their struggle is with meaninglessness. From the turtles they seek not some gnostic salvation, nor some life-changing achievement, but simply to be at peace with themselves and with the world. Though one might expect the freeing of the turtles to be a climactic event, the reason they are attracted to turtles in the first place is not out of a heroic urge to rescue them, but almost out of envy. They become fixated on the animals’ ability simply to exist, without the burden of thought or the need for meaning. It is specifically the act swimming, and the concomitant loss of self in the vastness of the ocean that seems to captivate them:
I can’t believe they’d swim 1,400 miles thinking about sharks.
Actually we’re all swimmers, we’ve all come from the ocean. Some of us are trying to find it again.
Could I abolish the human condition? Could I swim, experience swimming, finding, navigating, fearlessness, unlostness?
Madame Beetle swims in her green world expecting neither continuation nor sanity, I don’t think expectation is a part of her. While there is water she will swim. Arabella spins her weightless web on Skylab-2 and the white shark goes its way without rest. There is no buoyancy in sharks, they cannot rest, they must keep swimming till they die.
I read the book for my book club, and most of the others seemed to find the book overrated, apparently because it has acquired a bit of a cult following, so the word “masterpiece” gets thrown around a bit if you read reviews. The word evokes dramatic, transcendent moments, and though the book has some quite unique and beautiful scenes, The Turtle Diary skirts this kind of epiphany. It may therefore disappoint if you’re not prepared to take in its subtle beauty. Paradoxically, it’s the lack of climax that makes the book a masterpiece, as it perfectly captures the sea change of arising gradually out of loneliness and depression to join the living. In our book club we’ve read lots of other books about lonely people (Hangover Square, The Road Home, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, The Heart of the Matter…) but the agony and isolation of many of these characters eventually reaches a breaking point with resultant action. The Turtle Diary is not about the climactic moment but about the search for the present, how to exist organically without constant reflection on future worries or past mistakes. ★★★★☆