Turtle Valley is a quiet, restrained novel about big events — a forest fire and evacuation, a death, a marriage falling apart, buried memories of family abuse, insanity, infidelity and perhaps even murder. The main character, Katrine, returns to her childhood home to help her elderly parents prepare for evacuation. While there she uncovers a myriad of a family secrets and faces her own conflicted feelings about both the past and the future.
Katrine’s husband, Ezra, has suffered a stroke a few years before the time of the story, and Katrine is still dealing with the permanent changes in the man she married. As she begins excavating her family’s past she realizes that her long-dead grandmother faced the same kind of challenges: Katrine’s grandfather experienced shell-shock and brain injury as a result of his injuries in World War I, and remained unstable and unpredictable throughout their marriage. Katrine feels she must decide whether to repeat her grandmother’s choice and stay in a marriage with a man who needs more than he can give back in return.
The theme intrigues me because I have noticed that in every case (except one) that I personally know of where one partner has suffered brain trauma or injury, the marriage has ended in divorce. I can think of five cases off the top of my head — this is not counting situations such as a fatal brain tumour, which ends with the death of one partner, but things like head injury or benign tumours, where the affected partner survives but experiences a personality change. Katrine’s and Ezra’s story in this novel gave me a sense of why this might be so, of the particular burden that this kind of damage can place on a marriage.
The novel is, as I said, quiet and restrained, dealing with these heavy subjects in small ways, focusing on small moments between characters and on the physical objects Katrine finds around her parents’ home (each chapter heading is illustrated with a beautiful black-and-white photograph of one of these objects — my favourite being the Victory flour sifter just like the one I grew up using at Aunt Gertie’s). The oncoming forest fire and the threat of evacuation hang in the background of the story, placing a menacing pressure on everything the characters do.
While this book is beautifully written, it’s not flawless. I know I complain a lot about dialogue, but I have to do it again. While there’s some very good dialogue in this novel, Anderson-Dargatz does one of my least favourite things: she often uses dialogue to convey information to the reader that the characters would actually never need to say aloud to each other. A writer as good as Anderson-Dargatz shouldn’t be trapped by the clumsy device of having a pair of former lovers re-tell each other the story of their affair. Only a few comments would be necessary for them to evoke that whole era in their lives: phrases like “Remember how we used to…?” are clearly inserted for the reader’s benefit. She does the same thing with some old letters Katrine finds: the letter-writer gives far more information and detail than a person would actually do in that situation, and in a novel so firmly grounded in realism, I found this jarring. The “mystery” of the family’s past as revealed through conversations, letters and newspaper clippings unfolds in a way that’s just a little too neat for me — no loose ends left hanging as I think they would be in real life. And the non-realistic elements of the novel (possible ghosts seen around the old family home) seem out of place, cut from a different fabric than the rest of the book.
Despite these caveats, Turtle Valley is a beautiful novel that offers a challenging glimpse into the complex world we enter when we promise, “For better or for worse, in sickness and in health.” While I don’t necessarily agree with the choices Katrine makes in this story, the author has brought me into her world convincingly enough that I understand why she makes them.