Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban is an odd little gem of a novel that's filled with quirks, dark humor, and life-affirming moments. The particular copy of the novel that I own is also filled with lots of ink marks, as each new page seemed to reveal a new sentence or passage worthy of underlining.
The novel is told through alternating diary entries of two characters identified only as William G. and Neaera H. Both are lonely, middle-aged people who live isolated lives in London. William is a divorced, ex-advertising executive who works in a bookshop and lives in a room in a boarding house. Neaera is a children's book author who is prone to bouts of writer's block and insomnia. Externally, their only commonality is that they are both drawn to and fascinated by the sea turtle exhibit at the London aquarium. Internally, as revealed through their diary entries, we see that many of their other thoughts and feelings run along similar lines. After crossing paths several times at the aquarium, Neaera and William find themselves reluctantly swept up into a joint plan to break the turtles out of the aquarium and return them to the sea. It's an adventure that has a profound uplifting effect on both of their lives--though not in the predictable way the might expect.
I must admit that I approached Turtle Diary with a mix of curiosity and apprehension, seeing as it was my first venture into Hoban's adult works He's most famous as the author of the Frances the Badger children's series, which was one of my favorites when I was young. (My middle name is Frances so I was pretty sure the books were written with me in mind, badger or not.) In an interesting connection to those books, this edition's Introduction mentions the fact that Hoban had an ambivalent, at times even dismissive, view about the value of writing books for children. In this novel, he gives voice to these feelings through Neaera, whose books are also centered around a cast of animal characters. She is often given to self-deprecating thoughts about the ridiculous nature of her work. Yet even as Hoban expresses, he also manages to fill the book with exactly what he would want us to believe he's rolling his eyes at: animals that help to illustrate the meaning in everyday human activities. Between the sea turtles that William and Neaera rescue and various other creatures who make passing appearances in their lives and thoughts, Hoban's animals increase the fable-like quality of his story. It's exactly what I would have expected from the creator of Frances, and makes for a book that's well worth reading. It's not without its darker moments--most notably the suicide of a supporting character--but the end result is surprisingly inspiring.