It’s a funny thing, the expectations we bring to books. In the last post I blogged about a book I was eager yet almost scared to read, lest a favourite author let me down. (Fortunately, there was no let-down). Then there’s the case where you build up some kind of prejudice that almost keeps you from picking up a book at all — which nearly happened to me with Come, Thou Tortoise. I’m so glad I got past my expectations and gave this book a shot.
I didn’t know much about Come, Thou Tortoise, except that it was a first novel by a local author whose work I wasn’t familiar with, and that it was getting a lot of acclaim and attention. I started taking notice when it beat out Michael Crummey’s Galore and Lisa Moore’s February for the Winterset award, because those are two pretty big names for a first-time novelist to topple, and Galore was my favourite novel of 2009. I could not believe that a book about some chick who talks to her turtle could possibly, possibly compete with a novel with the epic sweep and depth of Galore.
So I started to develop this prejudice against Tortoise, which only got worse as the book scooped up more awards. Seriously, I said to myself, can this book be any good, or is it just this year’s trendy choice? Flipping through the first couple of pages in the bookstore didn’t grab me, and made me think that Grant’s lack of quotation marks (which you may remember is a pet peeve of mine in literary fiction) and question marks was just an attempt to hop on the latest literary bandwagon — in other words, that the book was all style, no substance.
WOW WAS I EVER WRONG ABOUT THAT.
I finally decided it was wrong to dislike a book without having given it more than a two-minute stand-up flip-through in the bookstore, so I got it out of the library and started reading Come, Thou Tortoise. I remained skeptical throughout those first few pages, when first-person narrator Audrey (sometimes known as Oddly) Flowers leaves her tortoise in Seattle and heads home to Newfoundland to the bedside of her dying father. I was bemused but unconvinced when Audrey tried to disarm an air marshal of his weapon on the flight. I was unconvinced when she finally arrived in St. John’s to be met with the news that her father was already dead. But somehow, between the airport and the house where Audrey was raised by her father and her Uncle Thoby, I got hooked.
And I stayed hooked. I think I got hooked on Audrey’s voice. She’s a classic naive and unreliable narrator, both in the lengthy passages where she’s relating events from her childhood, and also as an adult because, as we quickly figure out, Audrey is not all that bright in the conventional sense. But having a low IQ doesn’t mean she lacks perceptiveness: although she misses some obvious things that other people might quickly pick up on, she picks up on the heart of things that others sometimes miss.
All the things I thought were vapidly trendy about this book made sense once I’d read a few chapters, because they fit so well with Audrey’s voice, which carries the story. The plot is also neat, tight, and intricate, as Audrey moves through her grief over her father’s death to unravel a family mystery (though she doesn’t know, till the very end, what mystery she’s actually solving). The novel has one of those endings that makes perfect sense of everything that’s gone before, and makes you want to flip back looking for clues you might have missed along the way.
The words I’d use to describe this book — “quirky” and “charming” being the two most obvious — sound like qualities you could tire of quickly, that could grate on the nerves after awhile. But they didn’t. Audrey and her story (and her tortoise) keep right on being quirky and charming, along with fresh, insightful, sad and funny. Most of all, I’d call this story “heartwarming” — an adjective rarely applied to critically acclaimed works of Canadian literary fiction. My heart, anyway, felt strangely warmed after reading, and without comparing apples to oranges in terms of the literary merits of one book over another (one reason I would hate to be a judge for any major literary competition) I can honestly say that Jessica Grant, in creating a truly human story without sacrificing one moment of literary quality, deserves every one of the many prizes she’s earned for this book.