Monday, September 10, 2012

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant

Twenty-four-year-old Audrey Flowers hasn’t been home in a couple of years. She’s been on her “great safe adventure” leading her from Newfoundland to Oregon, where she lives in an apartment with Cliff, their walls covered in grips and holds for easy climbing. Winnifred, a tortoise that “comes with” the apartment, lives with Audrey, and narrates half of this return-home narrative when Audrey leaves her behind. Audrey’s scientist father is in a coma, and she believes that if she can get back to Newfoundland in time to say the right words in the right way, he will wake up.

Audrey is a “leapling,” born on the leap year, which means that although she is twenty-four, she has only had six birthdays.  She notes, “I unwind my arms and roll over to face the window. It is the solstice. Today or tomorrow. If you are born on a leap day, you can always tell. It is like a superpower. Not a very exciting one, but there you have it. You can recognize a solstice by the end-of-tether equality of the light” (236). Her father, a scientist interested in aging, passes on his passion for time and aging to his daughter. Audrey mentions near the beginning of the book that she remembers, “A man at Cambridge University has made a frog remember how to be a tadpole” (50). Grant concentrates on this theme to make Audrey appear both a grown woman and a young girl, and her return home to Newfoundland reverts her to her childhood self, where she is overcome by the memories of her dad, her Uncle Thoby, her imposing British Grandmother, and Toph, the man who once accompanied her on a visit to Newfoundland from England. All become wrapped up in a book that flashes back to Audrey’s childhood and stays there, as she creates a safe space of memory to hide out in throughout the aftermath of her father’s coma.

Jessica Grant is careful to weave the intricacies of Audrey’s “leapling” age into her personality, her reactions, and her understanding of the world. When she finds out about her father’s death, Audrey sends an email saying, “My dad is in a comma and waiting for me to open his eyes” (6), and these varieties of spelling, grammar, and even comprehension remain throughout the novel. Audrey’s almost movie-magic belief that her father will wake from his coma if she says the right words at his bedside is supported by other beliefs that become intertwined as a structure of her character. “Safe as Quantas” is her catchphrase, alluding to the fact that the Australian airline has been free of crashes, and she holds tight to that belief as she tries to protect those who are closest to her. It is a family-born idiom, “Herein lies the formula of my childhood: My dad plus Uncle Thoby equals Quantas. Which in our family means safe. Be Quantas. Be safe” (35). She phones Chuck and Linda, the couple she has left Winnifred with back in Oregon, late at night to check on Winnifred’s safety, asking, “I was just wondering if you have a fire alarm. And what kind of heaters. And where the castle is in relation to those heaters” (47). Audrey constructed Winnifred’s papier mache castle (sensitive to heaters and flame), and it is perhaps a reflection of her own inbetweenness as she retreats towards an arts and crafts mentality while also caring for something outside of herself and forming a close and important relationship. 

Audrey’s physical and mental age is conflated by her IQ-challenged state. When she phones her father and Uncle Thoby to report on her IQ results, which have been forwarded to her Oregon address in a manila envelope with other sundry affects from her grade school career, she is met with a different response than she expected, when her father says, “Listen to me, Audrey. You know what those tests measure. They measure how similar your brain is to the brain that made up the test” (71). Audrey, following his line of though, realizes what he means: “And then it dawned on me. Slowly. 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” (71). But what is even more interesting than Audrey’s age, mental and physical, and the conversations that give way to her characterization, is her own train of thought that Grant follows through on. On the phone with her dad and Thoby, she determines that you can pronounce IQ as an acronym, “Ick” (71). This throwaway line is developed further, as she angrily says her father, “You knew…You knew my Ick was low and you didn’t tell me” (71). There is this timeless complexity to Audrey that lies in between language and thought process, as the reader follows her thought progression while it zigzags and crisscrosses and creates new meaning in intersections.

Come, Thou Tortoise becomes a nuanced mystery novel, similar in ways to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time, but to the tune of Audrey’s favorite board game, Clue. Her time at home reveals her trouble with interpretation, as her childhood is undone, unraveled by the passing of her father and the connections that she follows through to the end of the novel: her Uncle Thoby, the imposing Toph, her British grandmother, and the quality of time and extending life that has followed her, scientific-like, since her childhood. It is also a break up story and a love story, a message from a man named Judd, a Christmas light salesman, “Thought you might like to know that someone is recalling you fondly. Also that someone is tracking your flight online. Hey, you’re over Ireland” (354), and the story of the relationship between the tortoise named Winnifred who is too used to being left behind: “My shoulders sagged. Would this be another Dubai. Would I be left behind for the next tenant. Would I be left” (314). Audrey is essentially home again and finding home, after living away throughout the majority of her postadolescence. It welcomes her back and allows her to stay, grown up without having to leave her childhood completely behind. 

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