Saturday, June 2, 2012

Shakespeare’s Bookmark: Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

As a bookseller, I encountered rather mixed reactions to Canadian fiction. These tended to be something like Oh or Um or No Thank You. Usually, all three.

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
For a novel built out of grief, Come, Thou Tortoise made me laugh. A lot. Possibly in public. Grant tempers her grim premise with humour that somehow avoids straying into black comedy. The book’s tone owes a great deal to Grant’s appealing protagonist, who shines light into the dark and unexpected corners of life and marvels like a child at what she discovers there. For much of the novel, we aren’t sure what to make of Oddly’s youthfully innocent view of the world. Aside from her unique diction, her charm comes from the little details of life onto which her mind fixates, turning them around in her head and in front of the reader though her pithy narration. Comas become commas, executors become executioners, tired people are unslept, and planes stay in the air through the collective good will of all aboard – or possibly magic. Because of her flow-of-consciousness style of storytelling, this journey inside of Oddly’s scattered brain feels vibrant and genuine. Finding ways to avoid looking at her loss straight on, she ends up glancing between colourful distractions and deeply personal flashbacks, which makes witnessing both her joy and her grief all the more gripping.

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.

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