Book Group read – ‘Turtle’

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)

Source: Own copy. Alice Hoffman, Turtle Moon (1992) Vintage paperback, 275 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.

8 thoughts on “Book Group read – ‘Turtle’

  1. Rebecca Foster says:

    That is indeed a random book club theme! This would have fit in my with my all-animal project this summer. I find that I’ve only read one Hoffman novel, The Museum of Extraordinary Things; I thought it was more. I didn’t much care for that one, but I’m interested in trying more by her. Here on Earth is on my TBR, and I have a copy of The Dovekeepers, historical fiction set in 1st-century Israel. I enjoyed her cancer memoir, Survival Lessons.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      We got to the stage in our monthly meeting where we said what theme shall we pick for 2 months time – and one of our group exclaimed Turtles, so we went with it! On Hoffman, I rather enjoyed Museum… she’s not written many historical ones, The Ice Queen is my favourite so far. I’d be keen to read her cancer memoir too.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I do like the idea of a book club with a theme; the thing that’s always put me off them is having to read a book I don’t really fancy. I’ve never read any Hoffman but she does sound good!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      For every book that’s been a chore at our book group, I’ve found more to love, more to explore further, and more to talk about. We love picking books ahead based on a theme – it leads to much more variety, which we love.

      • Rebecca Foster says:

        I feel like my book group needs to be organized about how we choose our reads. For the most part it’s been me suggesting books or authors, and then we do a poll and go ahead with the few most popular.

        • AnnaBookBel says:

          We have a 4 month cycle. 1. We pick a key word 2. next month, everyone comes with titles to pitch relating to that and we pick one by consensus or out of the hat. 3. We read it. 4. We discuss it. We’ve been through the rainbow, lots of genres, various countries etc.

  3. heavenali says:

    I read this years ago, and remember I loved it. But I couldn’t have told you a thing about the story, so it was lovely to have a reminder. I’ve read a few Alice Hoffman novels, some I liked more than others.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I think I’ve been lucky – I’ve enjoyed the five Alice Hoffman books I’ve read now. This is nearly as good as The Ice Queen, my favourite so far.

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