Russell Hoban’s novel of middle age Turtle Diary, reviewed.

A Great Novel of Middle Age—by the Author of Bread and Jam for Frances?

A Great Novel of Middle Age—by the Author of Bread and Jam for Frances?

Reading between the lines.
July 12 2013 10:20 AM

The Lost Great Novel of Middle Age

Written by the author of Bread and Jam for Frances, no less.

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Fortunately, Hoban is the most unconventional of fictioneers (one paper called him “the strangest novelist in Britain”), and thus while Turtle Diary contains the dramatic mainstays of love and death, they are not necessarily in the places you expect. What would seem to be the central event doesn’t neatly track as the Moment It All Changed. Though the book is seamlessly readable, the two-voiced structure renders the narrative unstable, its rhythm unfamiliar. William contrasts his and Neaera’s uncomfortable, confusing meeting to the charming way “a film with Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith” would handle it. “Real life is all the details they leave out,” he thinks. Is the story they find themselves in a proper one, of momentous happenings, of growth and change? Or will they be left behind with their lives running along the same, parallel tracks, the main narrative having been somewhere else all along?

Turtle Diary is not Hoban’s best-known book, though it was adapted into a well-received 1985 film (Harold Pinter wrote the script; Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley played the leads). Riddley Walker (1980) is generally considered his masterpiece, a ferociously imagined fiction in which he mints his own language (along the lines of A Clockwork Orange) in a new and brutal iron age; David Mitchell cites it as the chief linguistic inspiration for the central chapter of Cloud Atlas. But more popular by far are the Hoban books it’s likely you’ve already read, or have had read to you: the Frances series, in which the most charismatic of badgers sees ominous shapes as she struggles to sleep (Bedtime for Frances), adjusts to a sibling (A Baby Sister for Frances), has an elaborate picnic (Best Friends for Frances), and broadens her palate (Bread and Jam for Frances).

Hoban was born in 1925 near Philadelphia, went to art school, was awarded a Bronze Star in World War II, and worked as a magazine illustrator and in advertising before finding success as a children’s author. He moved to London with his family in 1969 and got divorced in 1975. (His first wife, Lillian, illustrated all but one of the Frances stories.) By the time Turtle Diary appeared, he had published 37 books for children and two novels for adults.


Surely one reason William and Neaera ring so true is that Hoban sheared off parts of his identity for use as defining aspects. The former is divorced (as Hoban would soon be), living a cramped boardinghouse existence in which clogged drains fill him with rage and magnify the loss of his former life. (Like Hoban, William once worked in advertising.) And Neaera’s popularity as the creator of anthropomorphized critters—Gillian Vole, Delia Swallow—makes her even more cynical about kiddie lit, to the point where she agrees to write a book on the “tragic heritage” of the genre: “possibly the biggest tragedy in children’s literature is that people won’t stop writing it.”

"People write books for children and other people write about the books written for children but I don’t think it’s for the children at all. I think that all the people who worry so much about the children are really worrying about themselves, about keeping their world together and getting the children to help them do it, getting the children to agree that it is indeed a world. Each new generation of children has to be told: 'This is a world, this is what one does, one lives like this.' Maybe our constant fear is that a generation of children will come along and say: 'This is not a world, this is nothing, there’s no way to live at all.' ”

Such eloquent nihilism makes you rethink the climax of Bedtime for Frances (1960) as a description of coerced consensus, with nothing but violent insanity at the core.

" 'Everybody has a job,' said Father.

'I have to go to my office every morning at nine o’clock. That is my job. You have to go to sleep so you can be wide awake for school tomorrow. That is your job.'

Frances said, 'I know, but ...'

Father said, 'I have not finished. If the wind does not blow the curtains, he will be out of a job. If I do not go to the office I will be out of a job. And if you do not go to sleep, do you know what will happen to you?'

'I will be out of a job?' said Frances.

'No,' said Father.

'I will get a spanking?' said Frances.

'Right!' said Father."

Hoban’s prose is elegant even at its most brooding, loaded with enough precision-cut lines to fuel your Twitter feed for a month. Yet the chapters also convey the aleatory rhythms and the frequent utter murk of day-to-day living—the details that ground the fantasy in reality. Entries often start with a small observation (“What a weird thing smoking is and I can’t stop it.” “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone pick up a box of matches without shaking it”) that opens up into a worldview. Like the rest of us—like people in real life—they see movies (King Kong, The Swimmer) and read books and reflect on them (separately, of course).

In one offhand bravura passage, William walks over a manhole cover and sees that it’s marked K257. It’s as though the simple fact of his noticing renders the mundane cluster into part of a cryptic code. Later he looks up the Mozart work with the same designation, which turns out to be the Credo Mass in C: “Credo. I believe.” Hoban gets to the lofty by studying what’s right underfoot.

Believe in what? Early in the novel, Mrs. Inchcliff, William’s landlady, thinks aloud about her ex-boyfriend. William notes: “There must be a lot of people in the world being wondered about by people who don’t see them anymore.” If you—solitary, gloomy, cynical you—are thinking of others, isn’t it entirely possible that someone is thinking about you? The sublime keeps cracking through the despair. What is magical about Hoban’s book is simply the possibility of connection: that someone else’s inner thoughts are moving at the same approximate pace and toward the same direction as yours, and that this silent kinship is revealed.

Which makes you wonder: Why is it Turtle Diary, singular, and not Diaries? Both William and Neaera are the writers, but neither of them can be the reader of the whole; the accounts remain quite separate. Could it be that, searching for connection, they have dreamt you, the reader, up? “Between now and then were all kinds of minutes, all of them good,” Neaera writes near the end. “Who knew what might happen at the typewriter?” Even at their lowest points, William and Neaera have kept writing, getting down the texture of their fears. And in writing, they have conjured you, like Shackleton’s third man, so that you can bring to their loneliness your own, and let it stop along with theirs.


Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban. New York Review Books.

Ed Park is a founding editor of the Believer and the author of the novel Personal Days. He is literary editor at Amazon Publishing.