I have to admit, I’m a real sucker when it comes to a well-written “voice” novel. This term, which I encountered after reading Martin Amis’ Money, describes pretty much what you’d think it describes – a novel written in the first person but with a voice so irresistibly original and startling in the way it processes and interprets the world around it. The joissance of a good voice novel is, of course, having your own consciousness subsumed by the narrator’s while you’re reading the book. Jessica Grant’s debut novel, Come, Thou Tortoise, published to much acclaim in 2009, actually doubles the pleasure: it offers two idiosyncratic raconteurs – Audrey (nicknamed “Oddly”) Flowers, who races home to Newfoundland from Oregon after a freak accident has killed her father, and her pet tortoise Winnifred, whom Oddly needs to leave behind.
Oddly is what we call a ‘leapling’ – meaning she was born on February 29; so while she is in her mid twenties during the contemporary sections of the novel, she has only had about six official birthdays. Grant cleverly uses this fact to parallel what we come to quickly realize about Oddly: that she is most likely a “developmentally challenged” young woman with a low IQ and child-like take on the world. Or is she? Oddly confounds us time and again because, despite her apparent ‘handicap’ of perpetual youth, she is exceedingly quick, clever and articulate when dealing with her family and the people she meets. Her zest for life and impulsive behaviour is charming to the extreme. It’s such a delight to live vicariously through her mind, the mind of a true eccentric; for whatever reasons of upbringing or circumstance, it appears Oddly never had those playful eccentricities grinded out of her by parents, teachers, employers, etc., like the rest of us.
The title of the novel comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are many tempests that Oddly must confront over the course of her story. She loves a good mystery (she’s obsessed with the game Clue) and sets herself on a mission to solve a number of mysteries from both her past and her present: the death of her father, the familial relationship with her beloved uncle Thoby, and most quirkily, the disappearance of a pet mouse who may very well be 20 years old or more. The brilliance of Come, Thou Tortoise is that you’re only given a narrow window of perspective on what exactly Oddly is trying to overcome. Her point of view is limited because of her ‘disability’, and the reader gets the sense that there are bigger mysteries, broader mysteries that hover high above Oddly’s level of understanding. Grant supplements Oddly’s narration with that of the tortoise to give us some extra perspective; but even Winnifred’s view is limited because she is, after all, just a tortoise.
This all culminates around Grant’s ongoing preoccupation in the book with aging and the attempt to perpetuate life for as long as possible. Oddly’s father is/was a “bio-gerontologist” whose life’s work was dedicated to reversing the inevitability of growing old – an obsession perhaps bourne out of having a daughter trapped in a kind of endless childhood. Winnifred is, of course, the perfect counterbalance to Oddly’s circumstances because she is a tortoise much older than any human could live to be. She is wise because of this fact, and yet not fully privy to what’s going on in the novel. The missing 20-year-old mouse may very be Oddly’s dad’s crowning achievement in science – or it may just be a lab rat replaced several times over the years to spare Oddly from dealing with the grief of its death. And the book’s sort-of villain, Oddly’s grandmother in England, comes to aging and her own death in the most graceless way imaginable.
Come, Thou Tortoise’s great strength is not, as some readers may imply, its ‘quirkiness’ or lightheartedness. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say this isn’t a lighthearted read at all. It is a profoundly serious novel dealing with the idea of complex mysteries that need solving, mysteries that are so often undone by our limited perspectives and the racket of our inner worlds. It’s also about how time runs out on all of us to figure these mysteries out before it’s too late. What a feat of intellectual vigour that Grant has been able to hold all of these themes in her mind at once and then render them into a phenomenally complex and well-structured novel. There is a craftsmanship behind this book that may play second fiddle to its 'quirkiness'. Come, Thou Tortoise will get you in the door with its ‘voice’; but you will stay for the joy of exploring its many depths and contradictions.