Turtle Diary

‘I was on South Bank one day by the Royal Festival Hall. It was a sunny day with a bright blue sky. I was looking up at a train crossing the Hungerford Bridge. Through the train I could see the sky successively framed by each window as the carriage passed. Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.’
– Neaera H.

This is not an ecological fable, though I assumed it might be from the title.  Instead, the main focus of Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, published in 1975, is on lives of quiet desperation and loneliness, and in particular of two people whose lives intersect for a while because they share a compulsion to release the loggerhead turtles in London Zoo into the wild.

William G. works in a bookstore and lives alone in an apartment, haunted by thoughts of the family he’s been separated from by divorce. Neaera H. is the author of children’s books, single, tired of writing books about cuddly animals and resigned to her aloneness: ‘My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life’.

It might sound bleak, but Hoban’s two protagonists reflect on their lives, in alternating entries, with a wry, bittersweet irony that engages the reader.  There is a great deal of humour in the book, for example when Neaera H. recalls a childhood visit to Polperro in Cornwall (where she and William G. plan to release the turtles), she muses: ‘One of the principal industries in Polperro is parking cars’.  William reflects on the wording of a panel at the zoo:

‘Two of the turtles at the aquarium are green turtles, a large one and a small one. The sign said: ‘The Green Turtle, Chelonia mydas, is the source of turtle soup…’ I am the source of William G. soup if it comes to that. Everyone is the source of his or her kind of soup. In a town as big as London that’s a lot of soup walking about.’

The turtles only bring William and Neara together briefly. For them both the fascination of the turtles lies in their unselfconcious ability to keep swimming towards their destiny without ever needing to question their purpose.  William thinks:

Could I be a turtle?  Could I through an act of ecstasy swim unafraid and never lost, finding, finding? …A turtle doesn’t have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that’s why man kills everything: envy.

Naera thinks:

I’m always afraid of being lost, the secret navigational art of turtles seems a sacred thing to me.  My generation was somewhat between things, neither free nor much supported by whatever held us in.

Both are capable of setting the turtles free but not of letting their emotional guard down for more than a moment or two:

Sometimes I think that the biggest difference between men and women is that more men need to seek out some terrible luring thing in existence and hurl themselves upon it like Ahab with the White Whale…William G. has found some monster and…What?  Almost I think he’s swallowed it.  It’s alive and eating inside him…There, I’m worrying about him.  I’ve breached my privacy badly.  There’s not enough of me for that, I have no self to spare…
– Neaera H.

The meaning of this novel could perhaps be found compressed in a line from Hoban’s later work, Riddley Walker:

Its in jus letting your self be where it is.

The longest and most spectacular animal migrations are made by young loggerhead turtles. They travel for a period of years along migratory routes that span entire oceans. Young loggerheads in the North Atlantic cover more than 9,000 miles to their mating grounds before returning to the North American coast. Those in the Pacific travel even farther.

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