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Bookends: Living with the Consequences of Disaster January 28, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: Living with the Consequences of Disaster

By Dan Davidson

Back of the TurtleJuly 8, 2015

– 895 words –

 

The Back of the Turtle

By Thomas King

HarperCollins

518 pages

$33.99

Thomas King’s latest novel begins one day at first light, a portentous day in which one man would try to kill himself, watched by two individuals as he headed for the beach and the rock formation where he hoped to be engulfed by the tide.

Watching him are a man named Nicholas Crisp and a dog which will acquire a number of names as the story progresses. Crisp is a man of indeterminate age who speaks in a strangely antique tongue and is a catalytic figure during his interactions with the others on this British Columbia coastline. This part of the book takes place near a deserted town that used to be known as the Smoke River Reserve, but is more commonly known now as The Ruin.

The man who is trying to physically drown himself is Gabriel Quinn, a brilliant scientist of First Nations lineage who is drowning in guilt. For some time now he has been conflicted about the work he has done for the Domidion company, particularly in the area of defoliants. He has been making lists of environmental disasters and the realization that his own chemical, called Greensweep. has, in fact, devastated the place where he grew up, has pushed him over the edge.

Quite by accident, he ends up saving the lives of some boat people on that very night, and his plan is postponed until at least the next high tide. He is still determined to do himself in as a penance, but meeting Mara causes him to delay his plans.

Mara is a Native woman who also grew up in Smoke River, and was living elsewhere when the Ruin destroyed the place, killing all the wildlife, the turtles which used to lay their eggs on the beach and, ultimately, most of the people who lived there. She has returned to try to reclaim some of her old life.

She and Quinn come into contact with each other, and with Crisp and the dog. The old man spends a lot of time trying to get the two of them to see possibilities in life, rather than just digging themselves deeper in sorrow. A lot of this involves retellings of the Turtle Island legend.

There are two other strands to the story, and they are sort of commentary and comic relief.

At the beach there is Sonny, a mentally unstable young man whose favorite pastime is hitting things (wham-wham!) with a hammer. He has deluded himself into thinking that he is looking after a derelict hotel with his father, who is, in fact, not there at all. His antics are often humorous, but we never quite figure out why he is the way he is.

In Toronto we spend some equally confusing time with Domidion CEO Dorian Asher, an extremely narcissistic man whose main concerns in life seen to be shopping, pleasing himself, and making sure that his company is never held responsible for any harm it might cause to the world.

It was a Domidion error – using many times too much of the chemical – that caused the Ruin. They have managed to cover that up so far. But Domidion is involved in the Athabasca Oil/Tar Sands mining in Alberta, and one of their settling ponds has just breached its dam. Others are about to follow.

As we follow Asher, it is clear that all of this is, to him, primarily an exercise in public relations. As long as they can stay ahead of the story, he can continue dining out, buying new watches and suits, moving to a bigger condo and puzzling over why his wife could possibly want to leave him.

He and his minions also puzzle over the whereabouts of one of the firms chief scientists, a fellow named Quinn. They can’t find any trace of him.

Asher’s portions of the book are perhaps the weakest parts. The other characters have developmental arcs – even Sonny to some degree – but I kept wishing that a safe would fall on the head of this cartoon character who seems to be totally devoid of any serious adult empathy for others. Maybe that was what King was aiming for.

It’s interesting that literary online accounts of this excellent 2014 book refer to it as the first novel King had produced after a 15 year detour into non-fiction. Since that detour produced a book of connected essays, The Truth about Stories, in 2003 (the Massey Lectures for that year, by the way), and two award winning books about the experience of First Nations people in Canadian history – A Short History of Indians in Canada (McNally Robinson Aboriginal Book of the Year Award in 2006) and The Inconvenient Indian (the RBC Taylor Prize in 2014) – I would say it was a worthwhile detour.

What puzzles me more though, is the total disregard for his foray into the mystery genre, the two books he published under the pen name of Hartley Goodweather. Dreadful Water Shows Up (2002) and The Red Power Murders: A DreadfulWater Mystery (2006) may not have quite the same Governor General’s Award winning cachet as The Back of the Turtle, but they are undoubtedly enjoyable novels and don’t deserve to be ignored.

 

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