The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

Possibly you would  laugh out loud if I wrote that this is the best fiction  book I have read in 2015 and rightfully so (it being January 5, 2015 at the time of this writing) although I believe there is a possibility that the statement might hold true a year from now. It will certainly be one of the top ten fiction books I will read in 2015.

Back of the TurtleI could not put it down easily and I finished in a matter of two or three days even though there were others I had started before retrieving this from the library. It read so easily and it illustrated  so perfectly the non-fiction book I have just finished (This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein) that I was compelled to finish it while not wanting it to end.

It begins with a short prologue which as a reader you know is important but the story moves quickly to the image of a man standing on a beach in the shadows of some hanging cedars listening to the heavy surf run in from deeper water. The dog from the prologue bursts out of the underbrush, races past the man and gallops back to him snorting and trembling. The man builds a fire and studies a sign above the beach which blinks pale blue and advertises the Ocean Star Motel. The man examines more of his surroundings and steps into the surf and makes his way towards a cluster of rocks known locally as The Apostles.

“The dog moaned and looked back to the high sand.”

“”It’s okay,” said the man, “you don’t have to come.”

The man had been to the rocks before and had always retreated to the beach but he was determined not to retreat this time. His name was Gabriel Quinn and he wore a leather jacket bearing  a banner on the back that read “Powwow Capital of the World”.  He had a worn photograph in his pocket and he carried an elk skin drum.

He stripped off his clothes and sang, “aiming his voice into the heart of the fog. But the breakers were having no truck with ceremony. They surged over the Apostles and sent him sideways. The drum was soaking now, but it had never sounded better. He had never sounded better. Maybe singing in the fog was like singing in the bathroom. Maybe the acoustics were always better in wet places.”

“Something in the water touched him, grasped his leg for a moment and then was gone. A small fish probably or a piece of debris. Or maybe something larger. Something looking for a meal. He pulled his feet further up the rock and watched the ocean roil below him.

“At first he didn’t see it. Saw only the vague shadows of the running tide. And then there it was. A hand thrust out of the water, then an arm, fragile, a slender branch caught in a flood.”

Who is Quinn? What is he doing out on the Apostles at high tide? Whose hand does he see?

The setting is the Smoke Reserve. The Ocean Motel used to be the center of a thriving tourist industry. Tourists came to see the sea turtles at Samaritan Bay. The people in Gabriel’s photograph used to live on the reserve.

All that has changed now and Gabriel wants to kill himself but we don’t know why. His time on the Apostles which we have witnessed does not result in his death but in a somewhat unique experience which requires considerable reflection. When he returns to the beach after his ordeal he contemplates his singular failure to drown himself. He sees a figure moving towards him along the shore and she turns out to be carrying his shirt.

As she approaches, he warns her: “I’m naked.”

She replied, “sounding neither curious nor concerned, “I can see that.” She told him that she had seen him out on the rocks several times.

“I’m trying to kill myself.”

“You’re not very good at it.”

The rest of the characters are equally interesting and refreshing and the story is a retelling of sorts. As the blurb on the book jacket tells us, it “draws on Christian and Native mythology and on King’s own unmistakable instinct for mischief to give us a cockeyed Garden of Eden for our times.” It is cinematic, amusing and sometimes laugh-out-loud hilarious while also being totally serious at the same time.

Some wee samples of reflections in the novel:

“Maybe that was Gabriel’s problem. Maybe he didn’t have a community, didn’t have anyone to anchor him to life. People weren’t single, autonomous entities. They were part of a larger organism.”

“…in the end, whether we was tossed or whether we was the architects of our own ruin, the end’s the same.”

“Do you know the fatal flaw of democracy?”

“People?”

“Democracy offers its enemies the means by which to destroy it.”

And this last one: Home is not necessarily, as Robert Frost said, the place you  go where they have to take you in. “Home wasn’t a place. At best it was a shifting illusion, a fiction you created to mask the fact that, in the end, you were alone in the world.”

Or was it?  This book will leave you thinking about a number of things for a long time and it will come back to you again and again.

 

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