I just read the best book of the year. Brilliant. Tender. Unique. Innocent. Imaginative. Funny. Heartrending. Beautiful.
If there is only one book you’ll allow yourself this week or this month or even this year, make it Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. Truly, there is no book like it. With those few words above you might already feel compelled to buy and read it. You might also, as I do, really want a tortoise after.
Come, Thou Tortoise is the story of Audrey (nicknamed Oddly) Flowers. It is also the story of Winnifred, her extraordinary tortoise; Wedge, a rescued mouse; Audrey’s scientist father and her asymmetrical Uncle Thoby; and also others, who for Shakespearean and Grantian reference we’ll call “extras,” though they all play some part in forwarding things along and aren’t really extra at all. The book brilliantly treats past, present, and future, history and biography and science, the personification of animate and inanimate subjects, love and abandonment, light and dark, life and death. Its themes are rich, the characterization richer. Grant’s expression of human emotions and understanding is exquisite. The book is raw yet delicate, humorous yet poignant. And it’s illustrated, which makes it more endearing.
Here I gave my first impression of Grant’s book. Only moments ago I finished Come, Thou Tortoise, with a lump in my throat and the feeling that I want to squeeze the author to me with deep appreciation and thanks and admiration (I may do this on Tuesday when she comes to the library. Will she bring a tortoise. I would if I were her). Instead I put the book to my chest and sense its heartbeat. It feels as though it’s a living, breathing thing I need to take care of, that’s how alive it was. When I flip through it again, wishing it looked more read so she will know that I really read it and not just read it but loved it (that will come in time, I promise you), I scan the bits of praise at the front and find them sadly bland in comparison to how I feel just now. What is wrong with people, I’m thinking. Why do these endorsements all sound the bloody same in every book. At least one of them said “tortoise de force” instead of tour de force.
I enjoy novels all the time. I rarely regret a purchase. But there are those very rare books out there that become priceless and the pittance you paid in comparison to their value makes you feel guilty or weird for even having purchased them in the first place, not regret but as though paying for the item cheapens it, like how I feel looking at Lucy, our dog, when I remember we actually bought her for $550. That’s weird, to pay for a family member so dear.
Not that I feel toward this book the way I do about my dog. But it is definitely my favourite book of the year so far, possibly of several years. I haven’t read a book I felt was perfect in a long time. I’m a critical reader, and a copyeditor, and I’ve read many, many books, for a very long time. So perfect is a word I use carefully, if ever. And this book, I do not hesitate to say, is perfect. Honestly, I can’t think of a thing I’d criticize. Even if there are things. This first time around, I didn’t notice. I was too engrossed. I didn’t care to notice.
I will admit that I didn’t buy this novel the first day I picked it up. For some reason, the title annoyed me (this so totally changes when I understand it that I have to take a moment before I can continue reading), and when I opened the book and read the first few pages, I didn’t think I’d be able to tolerate the style. But when I picked it up again, I remembered my experience with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I had put that book down immediately after reading the first page. But something in me couldn’t resist, and when I picked it up the second time, I ate that book up like it was the best book of the year too. And then it was on Oprah and also won the Pulitzer. I have impeccable taste. What happens is you realize the style is exactly the style it needs to be. It works. It’s…perfect.
At a hefty 412 pages, Come, Thou Tortoise is nothing short of genius to be able to constantly impress and surprise a reader the way Grant does with this book. Her witty and clever wordplay, her well-wrought sentences, her unusual similes and metaphors, her excellent characterization, especially of Audrey and Winnifred, and the things they observe and say and how they surprise you, Audrey’s endearing personification of inanimate objects and how she chats with animals, how absolutely related everything is (there is nothing unnecessary, nothing forgotten, everything is so well tied together), how cleverly wrought—all this makes me want to say this book is perfect. It’s scary, but I don’t take it back. Every bit of the story, as non-linearly told as it is, is so connected, so well woven, that you can hardly remove a sentence to quote without feeling that something will be lost, that the person won’t get it without reading the rest. And yes, this to me is a good thing. Absolutely nothing is irrelevant. It’s tight. 412 pages shocked me because I had no concept of how long it was. It doesn’t look long and it certainly didn’t feel that way.
Many times throughout I marvelled at how well-written this story was, how carefully chosen the words, how perfectly placed the segments and chapters were. Either Grant is a brilliant writer or her copyeditor is a genius. Probably both. Whatever, the book makes me teary with jealousy. How, I asked myself a gazillion times while reading and finally of my husband when I put down the book, did Grant do this her first time? How does a first novel end up so brilliant? How can I do that, too? Because now I know it’s possible.
Come forth, I say! there’s other business for thee:
Come, thou tortoise! when?
—Shakespeare, The Tempest