Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman
Our theme for our August book had been a random one – ‘Turtle’! There were a few potential choices, including Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, and Terry Pratchett of course , but the book we finally picked was Alice Hoffman’s 1992 novel Turtle Moon. Hoffman is a prolific but always enjoyable author – I’ve read several others by her: her debut Property Of (pre-blog), The Ice Queen (wonderful!), The Story Sisters, The Museum of Extraordinary Things – but not her most famous novel Practical Magic, which was filmed with Nicole Kidman.
Most of her novels tend to feature ordinary people put into stressful or difficult situations and we see the reactions of the world around them, but she also often inserts just a little magic realism, which let me reassure those of you who may be put off by it, is often more of an extrasensory feel, rather than anything overtly fantastic. Turtle Moon does feature an angel – a ghost – little brother of one of the main characters, trapped in the tree where he died in a car crash. He is there for his still grieving older brother rather than anything else though. Turtle Moon is set during the month of May in the eastern Florida town of Verity, a sweltering and extremely humid region bounded by swamp.
People in Verity like to talk, but the one thing they neglect to mention to outsiders is that something is wrong with the month of May. It isn’t the humidity, or even the heat, which is so fierce and sudden it can make grown men cry. Every May, when the sea turtles begin their migration across West Main Street, mistaking the glow of streetlights for the moon, people go a little bit crazy. At least one teenage boy comes close to slamming his car right into the gumbo-limbo tree that grows beside the Burger King. Girls run away from home, babies cry all night, ficus hedges explode into flame, and during one particularly awful May, half a dozen rattlesnakes set themselves up in the phone booth outside the 7-Eleven and refused to budge until June.
The first character we meet is Keith Rosen, the meanest boy in Verity, who has been suspended from school again – his mother doesn’t know yet. Lucy is Keith’s mother, divorced, returned to her hometown to start over, but dreading having yet another argument with her son when she returns home from the local newspaper where she works. Police dog-handler Julian is a man of few words, but has a way with animals and owns a rescue dog called Arrow, the baddest dog in town, but with the best nose. Bethany escaped to Verity with her baby daughter and a suitcase full of money, leaving her estranged husband and the impending custody battle, which she knew Randy’s family was likely to win. When Bethany is found dead, murdered, in the laundry room of the apartment block where she now lives, along with the Rosens and other single mothers, Julian is called in with his dogs once they realise that Rachel, the baby is missing, presumed abducted. Keith is also missing, and thus a key suspect, which neither Lucy nor Julian can believe. Can they find him and the baby and work out what happened?
The oppressive atmosphere in Verity just drips off the page. You can totally believe that everyone goes a little bit mad in May, the month where nature’s fecundity explodes into action. I hoped all the way through that enough of the turtles made it across the road to the sea; we never find out alas, many are squashed by drivers in darkness, leaving shells on the road to be skidded on. Hoffman doesn’t dwell on them, sad though their demise is, it’s part of May madness for the residents and drivers passing through Verity.
Hoffman’s narrative concentrates on the residents of the town, not a town you’d choose to stay in if you had the opportunity to leave. A collection of misfits, mostly poor, they all hope for better lives. There is a good camaraderie between the women, although the behaviour of Keith doesn’t help Lucy’s case. Why did she choose to return when she could have gone anywhere? There were some great supporting characters too, especially Miss Giles, an older lady who fosters any children needing help (which included Julian when he was younger), and Julian’s boss, the police chief Walt, who can be relied upon to not pry too hard when it’s for the better good. Hoffman makes all these folk, who are good at heart – even young Keith – very human and engages our sympathy for them.
Her observation of small town American life if second to none in this novel, the sadness and the hope. Alongside solving the mystery of Bethany’s murder, many of the residents’ lives need resolution too, and it is fair to say this story achieves that in a strangely compelling but realistic and enjoyable way in which the angel didn’t feel out of place. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed reading those other Alice Hoffman books, and will definitely look out for more. (9/10)