Turtle Diary

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Children, less bound by convention than their elders, are the demanding audience for which Russell Hoban has successfully written for many years. His disarmingly fresh approach to literature for adults, blended with clever imagery, is an echo from his children’s works that enlivens his writing in Turtle Diary.

Convention and habit surround us all to varying degrees and spin a web in which we can become caught; pleasant routine often becomes a tedious rut for many. Hoban in Turtle Diary has presented us with the story of two such people, William G. and Neaera H., told through alternating entries from their diaries. Both are middle-aged Londoners who live very private, lonely lives. Each is drawn, separately, to the sea turtles in the Aquarium of the London Zoo. Each is greatly disturbed by the captivity of such marvelous creatures and feels the urge to liberate the turtles from their tanks. They meet when they recognize the urge mirrored in each other. Through a conspiracy with George Fairbairn, the head keeper, William and Neaera kidnap the turtles and take them back to freedom in the sea.

It is such a whimsical story that the more romantic reader would expect loud ovations for William and Neaera for their heroic deed, or at the very least a reprimand or legal suit from the Society which runs the Zoo. Neither reaction is forthcoming, however. In fact, there is no reaction from the “public” at all. Having had no crusading ecological motivation behind their action, William and Neaera are not even exceedingly self-satisfied. Taken as just the recounting of a turtle raid by two recluses, the story is somewhat pointless, perhaps even altogether peculiar.

However, the restoration of freedom to the turtles is for both William and Neaera not so much something that they want to do but something that they must do, although they do not actually articulate a reason for it even to themselves. They certainly are not acting out of sentimentality either, for both of them have lost the capability of feeling such things long ago.

The portrait of William that Hoban paints for us through his diary entries is one of a gray, drab man mired in pointless routine, moving from day to day with no hope in his future. William has a past, but he represses thoughts of it for they make him wistful at best, but more often quite depressed. While once he had a wife and two daughters and a home to take care of, since his divorce he lives by himself in a roominghouse totally out of touch with his children. Where once he was a gregarious, successful advertising executive, now he is a bookstore clerk who finds it difficult to interact with the other clerks, the customers, and other boarders at the roominghouse.

Hoban describes Neaera’s life as being equally static. Her daily routine is even more private than William’s, writing children’s books in her apartment, speaking to very few other people, watching the movements of her pet water beetle. She tries to deny her dreadful loneliness by imagining the four walls of her apartment to be snug and cosy rather than confining, convincing herself that her corner of the world is sufficient unto itself.

Through their curiosity about the turtles, rather than any interest in each other, both William and Neaera find less and less satisfaction in their daily lives. Sea turtles in their natural environment make yearly pilgrimages through thousands of miles of ocean to lay their eggs. It is a perilous journey and they have no navigational aids save their instinct, but they make the trip anyway, swimming relentlessly until they reach their goal. It is their unthinking certainty of purpose that William envies. He realizes that time is relentlessly pushing him forward but he does not know for what purpose.

Neaera feels that a creature that has the capability to do something must not be kept from doing that something. If turtles are capable of making such a perilous swim, then they should not be confined by the four walls of their tank and prevented from fulfilling their destiny.

In short, William and Neaera recognize in the parallel of the unfulfilled destiny of the sea turtles the elements that are lacking in their own lives. It is an unconscious recognition and not exactly a welcome one. Both of them resent, in a way, such an intrusion into their privacy. It is much easier to plod through their familiar routines than to acknowledge their growing obsession—much less to act upon it. And yet, both of them begin to feel within themselves potentialities for the recovery of a...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, August, 1976, p. 83.

Christian Science Monitor. LXVIII, April 7, 1976, p. 27.

New York Times Book Review. March 21, 1976, p. 6.

New Yorker. LII, March 22, 1976, p. 130.

Newsweek. LXXXVII, March 1, 1976, p. 76.

Saturday Review. III, May 1, 1976, p. 36.