Come Thou Tortoise
by Jessica Grant
Toronto, ON: Knopf, 2009
432 pp. $29.95
Audrey’s story begins in Oregon, but when she gets word that her father is in a coma (or is it comma?) she leaves her beloved tortoise Winifred, and takes off for her native Newfoundland. Winifred is one of Grants’ many well-placed literary devices: taking on part of the narration, Winifred is a compelling foil to Audrey. The parallel is clear: Audrey is slow of mind but has the benefit of mobility whereas Winifred is endowed with the wisdom of ages, and is stuck inside a papier-maché castle in Oregon. The concept should limit the novel but it doesn’t. Trapped in their respective ways, both speakers flesh out their worlds with love - Winifred paints a vast emotional landscape whereas Audrey develops an instinctual (and at times heartbreaking) breakdown of human behaviour, bolstered by simple lists of rules to live by, literalizing what the rest of us do under the cover of ethical and political alibis. Indeed, their initially comical limitations become increasingly familiar and resonant ones, speaking to the personal entrapments we are frequently too proud to question and share with each other. Though it sometimes gets right to the heart of personal struggles, seemingly inadvertently, Come, Thou Tortoise skilfully avoids emotional cliché thanks to its good sense of humour, and Audrey’s total disregard for so-called normal adult behaviour.
At first, Come, Thou Tortoise is simply refreshing in its levity: this is a book that takes pleasure in the comedy of the very quotidian, but that refuses to do so at the expense of caring for its characters. Occasionally however, Grant’s clever wordplay goes beyond the comic and into the downright philosophical. By way of this quiet sophistication, Grant’s two main centrepieces go unspoken, perhaps to the detriment of the book’s social critique, though they do so in the name of remaining true to Audrey above all else. Specifically, Come, Thou Tortoise tackles two elephants that come together under one roof: the problem of difference (intellectual, political, social, biological, cultural, religious, and sexual) in traditionally conservative (and thus discredited) Newfoundland. In a way, this story instead imagines a world where these aren’t really even problems, partly because Audrey walks the delicate a line between almost recognizing her own difference, and embracing it, but never going so far as to blame others for her position or its limits. Because we are entirely with Audrey (or with a tortoise who loves her unconditionally), we come to see her world this way too. This allows us to look at Newfoundland and its myriad social imperfections with new eyes - eyes that focus on the results of tight knit community despite internal political dissent, and that read the province’s colonial relationship to England in terms of personal relationships rather than over-determined national identities. Grant’s Newfoundland is dominated by a sense of unqualified family, where relationships are free from categories such as biology, politics or history: family here is who you take care of, and who takes care of you. Despite its light heartedness then, this novel benefits from an underlying social critique of the hypocrisies that Audrey is open-minded enough not to see or pay lip service to (along with the other burdens of so-called adult behaviour) - an intelligence of vision that Jessica Grant skilfully encourages us to adopt, if only for a short while.
Amanda Tripp is studying English at the Masters level at McGill University, having completed her undergraduate work in Cultural Studies where she specialized in genre and gender studies in cinema. She is currently working on suppressed Family Gothic narratives in contemporary American film.