The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

Local Harvest: Books, Reviews

Thomas King returns to writing fiction with The Back of the Turtle after 15 years, earning him a Governor General’s Award. After bringing us gems such as One Good Story, That One, Green Grass, Running Water as well as the non-fiction The Inconvenient Indian, King weaves a tale of tragedy, redemption, and hope and reminds us that “everyone comes home.”

Turtle brings us the story of seemingly disconnected individuals, woven together by a man-made disaster that wiped out much of Samaritan Bay and the nearby Smoke River Reserve. As we get to know these individuals in King’s wonderfully crafted fragmented prose, we learn before they do, they’re all broken and seeking to be fixed.

At the centre of these characters is Gabriel Quinn, who we first meet naked on the beach looking out over the Pacific as he attempts to commit suicide. The setting is unmistakably BC with the water crashing up against the rocks and the backdrop of towering mountains, abundant forests, and hidden hot springs. While navigating King’s story, readers are invited to visualize a landscape that is at the same time familiar and distorted, like a memory that you can’t quite bring into focus. Quinn, we learn, returns to his hometown to end his life, because he feels responsible for the disaster that levelled it and killed his family.

King targets passionate political issues such as genetically modified products, spilled toxic sludge from tarsands, and the overbearing threat of capitalism on the Canadian landscape. He delivers a novel that is both hyper-aware of the national implications and ramifications of these issues, as well as one that is intimately focused on individual guilt at the hands of missteps and wrong decisions. And, despite the weighty nature of King’s themes, he keeps it light with sharp dialogue, dry wit, and tongue-in-cheek narration that are so indicative of King’s work.

The finer moments of Turtle come when King piles layers on top of historical, mythical, cultural layers. He blends Christian and Aboriginal mythology so seamlessly that if you don’t know to look for it, you might miss it. If you’re looking for a snappy, quick-paced story that breathes regret, growth, and hope — one you can pick up and read down on the beach in White Rock, or while camping at Cultus then this is a solid summer choice. Likewise, if you’re looking for a smart cultural text that challenges that which we know, and that which we experience — one that asks you to think and question, connect and disconnect, then this one is also for you. Either way, King nails it, again.

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Home grown Westcoasters Dessa Bayrock and Jess Wind bringing you some local literary flavour. We review works set in the valley, written by authors from the valley, or that have that British Columbia, Fraser Valley vibe. Come back each month to see what the Fraser Valley has to offer.