Sunday, March 08, 2009

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Bookwise, "quirky" is a demeaning term, and it only gets you so far. A grander scheme has to be in play in order for a quirky book to mean more than that, and so it is fortunate that in her first novel Come, Thou Tortoise, Jessica Grant so deftly pulls the strings. Fortunate because her premise is so intriguing, and the book itself is so physically appealing, that the substance of the story itself has an awful to live up to.

So what is with it with Audrey Flowers exactly? For she's a strange one, certainly, the product of a rather unconventional upbringing, and in possession a decidedly unconventional point of view. She's referred to, lovingly, as Oddly, and this is the main thing about her, I think-- that she is loved. When she finds out her father is ill and she must fly across the continent from Oregon back to her home of St. John's Newfoundland, she has friends with whom she can leave her pet tortoise Winnifred, and, however eye-rollingly, they do accommodate the tortoise's special needs. Upon arriving at home, she's surrounded by friends and neighbours wanting to take care of her, and when the Christmas light technician finally falls in love with her, in no way are we surprised or unconvinced.

There is much left unexplained in Come Thou, Tortoise, which is its point-- upon returning home Audrey realizes there is much she doesn't know (or has chosen not to know) about her background, and the rest of the story is of her pursuit to fill in the blanks. But Grant takes care not to explain too much to the reader either, not pathologizing Audrey. Though she does have a low IQ, she discovers, when she phones home to tell it to her father, and realizes that "what I had assumed was a high score was not a high score. It just sounded like a high score. It sounded like a not-bad grade, the kind of grade I never got in school." But she isn't stupid, she has friends, is utterly charming at times, and adept at the most surprising things-- disarming an air marshal mid-flight, for example, and then hiding in the plane's bathroom with the gun, refusing to believe they weren't all being hijacked.

The narrative is unconventional, and every so often Audrey's point of view is interjected by that of Winnifred the tortoise back in Oregon. Who is the voice of reason, as she serves her purpose as a bookmark/papermark in a collection of Shakespearean plays. But there is reason to Oddly Flowers too, an order to her skewed universe which we come to understand as her story progresses. Her narrative enhanced by simple artwork, and also her employment of wordplay, strange spellings, short and abrupt sentences and paragraphs. Grant plays with language in order to show us Audrey's point of view, to show us Audrey herself, and though the result is quirky as you like, it is also utterly real and convincing.

The grander scheme here at play, however, is not even the fascinating character development at work, but rather something far more fundamental-- plot. As the story progresses, mysteries deepen, and it's a race to the end to see what is what. And what is what, as you might imagine, is not what is expected, nor perfectly clear, but it's nearly perfect. As is Audrey Flowers herself, and this altogether marvelous and clever book.