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Come, Thou Tortoise

by Jessica Grant

Jessica Grant’s debut novel is one of those rare books that manage to entwine humour – in this case, even outright silliness – with poignant insight and a captivating plot.

Lost soul Audrey Flowers is living in Portland, Oregon, abandoned by her boyfriend and caring for her pet tortoise, Winnifred, when she learns that her father has been in an accident. She leaves Winnifred in the incapable hands of friends, swallows her fear of flying, and dutifully heads home to St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The endearingly innocent Audrey – dubbed Oddly by her family – returns to the city of her childhood and to the peculiar cast of people who populate her early memories. But she soon learns that these halcyon memories are not necessarily true to life and that the people closest to her are also the people she least understands. What follows is a glorious misadventure of self-discovery, made all the more interesting by the book’s narration, which is shared between Audrey and her wise and occasionally self-important tortoise.

Throughout, Grant’s writing has a staccato cadence; thoughts, sentences, and chapters are short, sharp, and come at a dizzying pace. But rather than being overwhelming, this style whisks the reader along through marvellous turns of phrase and wacky narrative leaps. Grant has a gift for capturing entire characters or situations in clever snippets. Take plane travel: “I have understood that planes are magic and one thing that keeps them afloat is belief in the magic and another is the web of goodwill among passengers.” Or a St. John’s cabbie: “Clint has a superabundance of vehicular prowess.”

The book’s principal shortfall is that sometimes Grant’s wordplay gets in its own way. For instance, Audrey’s frequent misspellings and far-fetched word choices come across as gimmicky rather than reinforcing her childlike character. But this is hardly a damning fault.

Come, Thou Tortoise is many things: a story about finding belonging, a paean to the importance of family, a commentary on relationships, and a kindhearted critique of modern life.