Turtle Diary is a brilliant, funny, bittersweet and ultimately redemptive meditation on middle-aged loneliness. Russell Hoban is best known for his children’s books (especially the picture books about Frances the Badger and two of my favorites, The Mouse and His Child and Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas) but he wrote fiction for adults too, and this slim 1975 novel about two socially isolated Londoners who meet accidentally at the London zoo and bond over their fierce desire to free the sea turtles housed there is one of his best works. Maybe the best, I haven’t read enough of his work to say for sure. But this novel won my heart from the first paragraph on.
The chapters alternate between the voice of William (a divorced middle-aged bookseller who hasn’t seen his children in years) and Neaera, a children’s book author and illustrator who has lived her entire adult life alone. Hoban is a gifted observer of the tiny details that make up our every day existence, and one of the things I loved about these characters was how they constantly noticed the smallest, most ordinary things in their world, things most of us never see or pay attention to, and connected them to the bigger picture, the larger context of their lives. One perfect example of this is a scene in which William is crossing the street and he looks down and sees a manhole cover with the phrase K257 on it. He steps on it and thinks, “All right, go ahead, play Mozart.” When he gets home and looks up the Kochel number, he learns that K257 is the Credo Mass in C. “I believe,” is what the manhole cover says to him from that day forward. It’s perfect little associations like these that make this book so brilliant, and touching. If you have ever felt bitter, or lonely, or lost your faith in humanity, read this book. You won’t regret it.