I don't believe I've ever read anything quite like Jessica Grant's Come, Thou Tortoise. In fact, I'm not even sure what it's about. I disagree with the book jacket's assertion that it may be a "small mystery," and I'm puzzled by the assertion in the publicity materials that its main narrator, Audrey Flowers, is "IQ-challenged." Audrey might have been told by her school at one point that she had a "low IQ," but that's not credible. Audrey's brilliant. She's hilarious. I could read about her all day.
The same goes for the tortoise. Oh, and the talking fruit fly.
But it doesn't really matter that Come, Thou Tortoise defies a simplistic categorization. It is a somewhat sprawling, but well structured comic novel with many serious messages and much marvellous insight. It's extraordinary, original and simultaneously both deep and lightheartedly charming. It plays tricks with words such as are rarely assayed by mere mortals. Audrey alludes to everything from pie recipes to board games to operetta to the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol.
It's all a little bit Alice in Newfoundland: Taxis wear Napoleon hats; a hovering Drosophila asks Audrey if she's planning to brush her teeth any time soon (it likes toothpaste); a pet mouse lives longer than any run-of-the-mill mouse might ever do. But in the context of this East Coast Alice's fall down the tortoise hole, it all seems - in fact, is - completely normal.
The book begins with Audrey boarding the plane home to St. John's from Oregon City, where she has been living with her tortoise, Winnifred (originally named Iris, after a device that reads people's eyeballs for security purposes). Audrey has been summoned home by her beloved Uncle Thoby, her father having lapsed into a coma (known to Audrey as a "comma") after being hit by a Christmas tree. It is sufficient warning of what sort of literary experience this is going to be when Audrey, within the first two chapters, successfully relieves the plane's air marshal of his weapon, and locks herself in the bathroom with it. She had thought he was a terrorist because he spent too long on one page of Shirley MacLaine's Out on a Limb.
Come, Thou Tortoise had me from Word One
Like all of Audrey's adventures, this extraordinary behaviour is related by Audrey in the calm voice of a true eccentric. She guilelessly explains her bizarre actions with impeccable logic, coming out looking like the normal participant in this escapade.
It immediately becomes clear that the book jacket has failed to adequately synopsize Audrey's (and Winnifred's) adventures. Certainly there is much more going on in this book than the "small mystery," or Uncle Thoby's eventual decampment for England, which the jacket describes as being the central events of the narrative. But Thoby doesn't depart until halfway through the story, leaving the reader wondering if the guy is ever going to go.
Furthermore, the mystery - while wondrously strange - unfolds only in the last third of the novel. So much more "story" is involved in this tale. What about her scientist father and his shrewish mother? What about Audrey's romance with the boy who manufactures Christmas lights in his attic? What about the tale of the tortoise-sitters, who care for the heartbroken Winnifred? And what of Winnifred herself, who tells her own story in her own voice, while awaiting Audrey's return with the faith of Greyfriars Bobby, and the dread of true abandonment?
It might all sound a little madcap, and madcap narratives can be irritatingly self-conscious, shrieking, "Look how wacky I am!" from every page. Not here. Despite all the curiouser-and-curiouser behaviour, it all seems very familiar, and very "real." Perhaps this is because the reader feels involved, spoken to like a member of the family, or of the community. From the "Northwest Shove" to the Gilbert & Sullivan in-jokes, the reader is included in the tribe. In all our families, and all our neighbourhoods, we have people like Audrey and her family, and ways of saying things to one another. Grant has succeeded in capturing that feeling.
Come, Thou Tortoise had me from Word One. Jessica Grant has an engaging, wry and forthright style, which echoes Miriam Toews, Don DeLillo, Lewis Carroll and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (right down to the occasional and appropriate use of illustrations). Considering that there is so much sadness behind all the events (the father dies, the uncle leaves, the only other relatives are Dickensian creeps), this could have been a grim, tight narrative with a gloomy outlook and only black humour to relieve the self-pity. Instead, it's a delight. Pick it up, and prepare to see everything from Methusalan mice to palm trees in England. Pack a lunch. You may end up reading all day.
Diane Baker Mason is a Toronto author and lawyer, whose most recent novel is Last Summer at Barebones.