Shamefully, I’d never read a Thomas King book before The Back of the Turtle. Every avid Canadian reader I know has either read King’s iconic Green Grass, Running Water or his most recent non-fiction blockbuster, An Inconvenient Indian. A copy of the former has been sitting on my bookcase for six months calling to me (as unread books do) and for whatever reason (work, marriage…life) I’ve managed to neglect it. After reading The Back of the Turtle, I won’t.
I’ll spare you the suspense: I loved the book. An advanced copy of King’s new novel landed on my desk in early June so it was at the top of the pile when a vacation—two weeks of uninterrupted reading time!—came around. It is a highly enjoyable, accessible read that will pull at your heart strings. But what I thought a lot about in reading this book was a conversation I’d had recently with another avid reader about heroes in Canadian fiction. Who are the heroes of Canadian literature? Think about it, it’s an interesting question. So throughout the book I found myself asking: who is the hero of The Back of the Turtle?
We follow the perspectives of three characters: Gabriel, Dorian and Mara. We first meet Gabriel as he attempts to drown himself. His suicide attempt is interrupted when he’s forced to save a young girl (and several others) in an event he isn’t certain is a hallucination. Dorian is a Bay Street mogul; the head of a huge corporation who is searching for Gabriel even while he tries to manage an environmental disaster his company may be responsible for. Mara meets Gabriel on the beach (during one of his suicide attempts) and has a connection to him that plays a huge role in the novel’s cathartic climax. Each of them is well drawn and very flawed. That is, they feel real.
So who is the hero? I couldn’t help but identify with Gabriel. He longs for the family he left behind and a release from life’s complications (though, I promise, I haven’t committed the crime that has him so guilt-ridden!) He is certainly the one who drives the action and sets all other action in motion. But no one here is without shame or guilt. No character, not even the lively and very entertaining Mr. Crisp, isn’t attempting to redeem themselves. If a hero’s responsibility is making us better, or inspiring us in the attempt, I’m convinced that Canadian novels do have heroes and The Back of the Turtle has many.
What The Back of the Turtle isn’t is whatever “Canadian fiction” has come to mean. That is, those people who say “Canadian fiction” derisively as code for “lacking excitement.” If you’ve ever questioned a decision in life, longed for home and family or wondered about the path you were on and your place in the world The Back of the Turtle will appeal to you.