Welcome to Qantas flight 123. This is your captain speaking.
Okay, so we just stared at the pale green wall when we were flying, but we were flying for Chrissakes. We flew all over the world. We flew to China and France and I played with the knobs and said, Ladies and gentlemen, we will be experiencing some turbulence. When we were out of the turbulence, Uncle Thoby headed for the beverage cart. My dad said, Anywhere but London. Uncle Thoby, when he walked down the aisle, pretended to lose his balance. Steady on, Airbus 320.
After I finished reading Come, Thou Tortoise, I went poking around for reviews of it and was interested to discover a thoroughly unsympathetic one from Lucy Ellmann, currently basking in critical acclaim for her recent novel Ducks, Newburyport. If for some reason you think that two novels with animals in the title are likely to have something in common, you are wrong: based at least on my reading of the first 100 pages of Ducks, Newburyport, Come, Thou Tortoise is pretty much the anti-Ducks, Newburyport — and so it makes perfect sense that Ellmann didn’t like it:
We’re warned of this on the back: “A novel of love and lettuce … a warm-hearted, funny and wise book.” People who prefer unwise books, not about lettuce, may find themselves begging by the end – like the guy stuck all night in the perfume section of the department store – “Quick, give me some sh*t!”
It also makes perfect sense, then, given how much I enjoyed Come, Thou Tortoise, that I didn’t like those 100 pages of Ducks, Newburyport at all. (I might like them better eventually — we’ll see.) The two books represent profoundly contrasting sensibilities: assuming Ellmann in 2009 was about the same kind of writer she is in 2019, assigning her to review Come, Thou Tortoise is a bit like using sandpaper to clean a window.
Maybe the Grant – Ellmann (dis)connection is a red herring. Certainly I’m not in a position to sort it out definitively until (unless) I finish Ducks, Newburyport. For now I really just want to report how much fun I had reading Come, Thou Tortoise, a book I never would have picked up if a wise and witty student hadn’t recommended it to me. It looks twee, for one thing, plus it’s about Newfoundland and I don’t usually get along well with Canadian regional fiction. A comic novel with a talking turtle, a narrator named Audrey but known (fondly and, as it turns out, appropriately) as “Oddly,” and an eccentric cast of Newfoundlanders? It sounds all wrong for me, and yet I loved it, even though there are some things about it (including Winnifred, the hyper-articulate tortoise) that I’m not sure would stand up to the kind of strict scrutiny that demands a thematic porpoise, sorry, purpose, for every detail. That kind of wordplay is another possibly indefensible but persistently charming feature of the novel — Audrey’s father, for example, has fallen into a comma, sorry, coma:
Uncle Thoby is stepping up the sinking stairs. Oddly. I am hugged into his noisy coat.
You said it was a comma.
I know, but it’s over.
Audrey has returned to St. John’s because her father was struck by a Christmas tree that was sticking out of a passing truck. Back home with Uncle Thoby, she has to adjust to the reality of his death while surrounded by places, objects, and people that remind her of their life together. The novel moves back and forth between that painful present struggle with grief and her family history, including Uncle Thoby’s arrival and incorporation into their eccentric household.
Come, Thou Tortoise (the title, as Winnifred discovers on our behalf, is a line from The Tempest) is certainly a quirky novel, with lots of comedic “bits” that might well irritate a dour or cynical reader, such as the swans constantly dipping their heads into the purportedly bottomless pond: “When the swans lift their heads, they look surprised. Did you see the bottom? No. Let’s check again. They have been checking for years and continue to be surprised.” I can be dour and cynical myself, but I loved the swans, and the Christmas light guy, and Winnifred, and the airplane Audrey’s father and Uncle Thoby create in their basement to help Audrey overcome her fear of flying. Audrey’s voice was the magic trick that made it all work for me. She’s a complicated narrator, part naif, part–I’m not sure exactly what! There is definitely a gap between the childlike whimsy that makes her endearing and the ruthless determination that forces her as well as others to confront uncomfortable truths. In the opening scene, she disarms an air marshal: she is also metaphorically disarming throughout, which is cute, but in any case that is not the opening gambit of a weak or truly innocent character. At one point we learn that Audrey’s school sent home a report indicating she has a “low IQ””
IQ is not even a real acronym, Uncle Thoby was saying. GOLEM is a real acronym. SCUBA is a real acronym. You can’t even pronounce IQ. Don’t take it personally.
You can too pronounce it, I said. You can pronounce it ick.
“Mine was more than a bit disappointing,” she later tells her friend Judd, who replies, “That’s because they can’t measure what you are.” “What am I?” Audrey asks. “I don’t know,” replies Judd, “but I wish there were more of you out there.”
Ellmann’s main complaint about Come, Thou Tortoise is that “somewhere along the way, any real feeling for people goes astray.” Though I can see why Ellmann isn’t able to go along with what she uncharitably calls the novel’s “swill of sweetness,” I think she is just wrong about its lacking real feeling. There is a great deal of tenderness in it, for one thing–though perhaps that’s too close to sentimentality to be what she means. More than that, for all Audrey’s oddities and the comic delights they provoke, the novel is quietly profound about grief. Looking for her lost mouse Wedge (a refugee from her father’s research on longevity–a motif with its own emotional weightiness in the context of his premature death), Audrey goes into her father’s room for the first time since she came home:
Why did I come in here.
Well, that was stupid. He’s not here. And now you have made your dad dead in this room. And you will keep doing this. Every new room you enter, you will make your dad dead in it. Now he is dead on the second floor. He is dead on the ground floor. There is only one floor left.
The true story of her father and Uncle Thoby and their English arch-nemesis, whom Audrey knows only as Toff, is also much more complex and emotionally fraught than Audrey (and thus we) understand at first, and as Audrey’s quest to find Wedge turns into a mission to understand who they all really are and what their lives have been, there is plenty of turbulence that shows us how precarious and also how precious the comic side of life really is.