What is wrong with Canadian fiction, I would ask.
It is too bland, they would say. Too drab. I don’t like it.
Oh, I would say back.
And then I would offer them Come, Thou Tortoise in hopes of changing their minds.
The first novel of Newfoundland’s Jessica Grant, Come, Thou Tortoise wanders between two narrators. The first is Audrey “Oddly” Flowers, whose father lies in a coma after an accident – or as Oddly insists on calling it, a collision – with a Christmas tree. Oddly flies home to St. John’s to be with her family, stubbornly optimistic in the face of growing questions about her father and her future. Whether she’s inventing strange shovels, rescuing laboratory mice, or getting trouble with the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, Oddly’s voice made me smile from the first page.
The second narrator is Winifred: an old, slow soul with a fondness for long drives, a homemade paper castle, and an interest in Shakespeare. Also, Oddly’s tortoise. Her periodic interludes give us a peek at the life Audrey has left abruptly back in Oregon. Sardonic and wry without jarring the reader, the reptile brings an endearing perspective that, like her keeper, manages to keep the story intriguing and unpredictable.
Grant – through Oddly’s often wilfully oblivious voice – refuses to spell out exactly what’s going on, taking this to an almost extreme level in the elimination of most punctuation from the book’s text. No question marks, quotation marks or drastic formatting anywhere. Why would one do this. Perhaps to achieve a certain kind of rhythmic, deadpan tone in the writing. To give the impressions that we are reading Oddly’s thoughts as they come to her, without any kind of embellishment or editing. Seems like a risky premise that could have proven distracting – and if you aren’t expecting it, it can take a few pages to get used to – but I applaud Grant for taking it.
So does it work.
Boy does it ever.
|Author Jessica Grant|
Another word that tended to unsettle my bookstore cliental was ‘quirky’. Perhaps they heard it as ‘childish’, ‘silly’, ‘unrefined’. Come, Thou Tortoise is perhaps all of these, but only in the best ways, the most human ways. It’s a kind of understated humour that feels Canadian, perhaps because it looks at all those deep, sticky questions of life and death and family, only sideways, while shovelling the driveway with orange mittens.
Can you be bland and drab while wearing orange mittens.
But not while reading this book.
– Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.