Tuesday, 8 November 2016
The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King
Last month's book club read was an interesting experience in crowdsourcing fiction, but the end result was truly terrible, and only one person managed to finish the entire book. (I was not that person. About five chapters in, I lost the willpower to force myself to continue reading.)
So I was very glad to get back to normal fiction, written by one person with one viewpoint and writing style, and that it was Thomas King, whose Green Grass, Running Water absolutely blew my mind a couple of weeks ago was an added bonus. Add into it an edge of science fiction dystopia (just an bit, but this easily fits into the emerging "cli fi" genre, wherein climate change and the effect on the world and the landscape, are at the centre. Particularly when you look at corporations and the effect of the profit margin above environment impact. Or really, any impact.)
What this isn't is quite as lyrical and buoyant as Green Grass, Running Water. However, it was a solid and gripping novel about environmental disasters, a deserted reserve, and maybe some figures from First Nations legend, and just possibly two members of the Holy Trinity and either the third or the Devil? There's enough ambiguity here that I'm not entirely sure, although things that initially seem perhaps miraculous are eventually explained as mundane, and yet, when we come down to the end of the book, I'm not sure that there's not a supernatural working through the natural to get things done.
Gabriel was a scientist with a company named Domidion, who shoved aside responsibility for the genetic material/defoliant he created for many years, until he finally comes to a point where visiting the site of an environmental and human disaster he created to commit suicide seems like a morally necessary choice.
Once there, as he tries to let the tides drown him, he finds people who resemble figures from legend in the water, and saves them and himself, although it's not as simple as that he decides to live - it's more like he postpones his action, while still having death as an overall goal.
Nearby the deserted rerserve lives a woman who left for a life as an artist in Toronto and has come back to the deserted homes and deathplaces of her family and friends - notably, all of whom are women. She comes from women and they are gone.
There's also a young man who is not mentally whole, who calls himself Sonny. His unseen Dad lives (or doesn't?) in Room 1 at the motel, and whether or not he's more than that is part of the question of how closely myth intersects with mundane in the this world. And another character (I'm so terrible at retaining names), Crispin, who seems to have greater knowledge than he should, and possibly to be immensely older than should be possible - or is that just how it appears?
This tension between the very mundane and the possibly numinous plays with the reader, never quite entirely coming down on one side or another - or maybe it was just that I enjoyed the ambiguity more than I wanted to be given a definitive answer. I like not knowing, in this case - it is not a mystery that needs to be answered, although many of the mysteries are.
We also move back and forth from the site of the Kali Creek disaster to the head of the company Gabriel had worked for, and if Gabriel is wracked with guilt, Dorian doesn't really know what it is. He is sociopathy laid bare, the amoral centre of a company for whom power and wealth are absolute goods, and the owning and displaying of privilege the greatest pleasure. His life is slowly disintegrating, but he comes at it with such a different view of the world that he explains his erratic behaviour to himself and others in ways that are chilling.
There is sort of a twist near the end, but it's one that is more of a surprise to the characters than to the reader. I figured it out quite early on, and it didn't feel like I wasn't supposed to - the tension was in watching the characters dance closer to the knowledge of how they might be more closely connected without knowing what the result of that knowledge would be.
I don't love this book as much as I loved Green Grass, Running Water, but it was still a great read, and one I would highly recommend. It's not a settling book, but that sense of unease was masterfully done.