I’m not sure when Come, Thou Tortoise first grabbed my attention. I could been wandering through a bookstore, and locked eyes with a new Kelly Hill design (who is so brilliant that all of her covers convince me a brief TPL loan just will NOT do). It may have been the review from the much-admired (by me and others) Kerry Clare. And then one day, thanks to my thoughtful BF, I received the book as a gift, and as Audrey Flowers would say, I would not say no to a book.
As it turns out, the book’s physical charms were perfectly fulfilled by the book itself, which is a unique, refreshing delight. The story has a sense of whimsy equal to its cover, though not without a darker edge. For this is a story greatly concerned with loss, as it starts with Audrey Flowers taking a terrifying plane ride home to Newfoundland where her father is in a com(m)a. She arrives to discover that her fantasy of a rousing and restorative speech at his bedside will not come true — and while her father told her to assume that life can go on indefinitely, it has not.
Audrey (affectionately known as Oddly) is a curious character a “leapling” who functions as an adult, but has only had six birthdays and has what she finds out is disappointingly low IQ. She has a sophisticated sense of wordplay (declaring her father in a comma — a pause — rather than a coma, and never missing an opportunity for a good pun), and yet fails to grasp some of the larger realities of her daily life. The resulting interplay between the innocence of a child and the wariness of an adult is what makes Audrey such a fascinating character. She is someone who sees ballerinas in corkscrews, treble clefs in suburban streets, and knows that every prized turtle should have a papier-mache castle. Her unique voice of simple sentences always ending in periods is alternately direct and playful, often making me laugh out loud and staying with me long after I closed the book. It’s an amusing voice to have in one’s head, and I would LOVE to hear Jessica Grant read from her book.
There is one other narrator, Winnifred, Audrey’s tortoise, who is just as endearing, if far more self-aware than her owner. Winnifred has been left behind in Portland while Audrey is in Newfoundland, and being an animal with a long life span, Winnifred gives us new insight into Audrey’s past and her character (goodwill toward tortoises is a very likable quality in a person). Winnifred is Audrey’s rock, and her short narrative bookmarks also help reinforce some of the novel’s larger themes. As someone who takes her home with her, Winnifred should be at home anywhere, and yet her rotating caretakers prove that home is about people as well. Like the safety-obsessed Audrey, she’s also hard-shelled, carrying a protective layer with her everywhere she goes, though it is the warmth of human contact that is the most necessary (It seems being put under an armpit is the tortoise equivalent of spooning).
But most importantly Winnifred, in all her wisdom, understands the cycles of life, its ebb and flow, which in one particularly key passage, the tortoise relates to her infrequent heartbeat. She explains that “The Ebb [the space between heartbeats] is rather sad, I do admit. And when the heartbeats are few, the Ebb stretches on. The Ebb is like a path that becomes less a path the farther you travel along it.” And there could be no more perfect metaphor for Audrey’s journey as she struggles to deal with her father’s death, her beloved uncle’s sudden departure, and the mysterious disappearance of her cherished lab rat. But, Winnifred notes, “When the heartbeats do come, they are magnificent.” And such are the emotional peaks of Come, Thou Tortoise, and though the rambling path of Audrey’s ebb can be sad, it is equally enchanting.