I wanted to read Russell Hoban: the question was, where to start? Hoban’s website has a handy page of suggested introductions, and I just went for the book billed as “the most accessible” – 1975’s Turtle Diary

Two characters take turns to narrate: bookseller William and children’s writer Neaera. Both are middle-aged, living in London, lonely. They don’t know each other, but there’s one thing that unites them: a concern for the sea turtles at London Zoo. Held captive, these creatures are unable to follow their natural instinct to navigate to the sea. William observes: “Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean that couldn’t be said.”

Neaera and William have a dream to take some turtles from the Zoo, travel to the coast and set them free. What’s striking to me is that, when the pair first come across each other and recognise their shared preoccupation, they are reluctant to join forces. I kept imagining another version of Turtle Diary, a more straightforward tale of ’empowerment’ in which the protagonists get together readily, pursue their goal single-mindedly, and find their lives changed permanently for the better. 

That version of Turtle Diary wouldn’t be as good as Hoban’s. 

Don’t get me wrong: the turtles matter to William and Neaera, the pair go through with a plan, and there are consequences. But the protagonists’ concern for the turtles comes from a deeply personal place: it’s standing in for a more fundamental absence. As Neaera puts it: “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” This is not necessarily an experience that the characters would want to share with someone else – and setting the turtles free won’t necessarily open up the rest of life. 

I appreciate the knottiness and ambivalence of Turtle Diary: there is hope, but it’s not automatic. Hoban’s writing sparkles… I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this novel before, and I can’t ask a book for much more than that. 

Published in Penguin Modern Classics.