The Guelph community is definitely proud to boast that one of our local authors, Thomas King, was the winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. King is considered to be one of Canada’s most prominent writers, and he is known in local circles for his honest observations, witty commentary, and self-deprecating humor. The Back Of The Turtle won the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, so it was not surprising that many of our library book clubs elected to read and discuss the book at their meetings.
It has been my experience that winning a literary prize like the Giller Prize or the Governor General’s Award does not guarantee an appreciative book club audience (as the average reader’s taste may not match up to critics). The great appeal of The Back Of the Turtle is its dark humor, witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and accessible myths, that result in a very engaging and likeable novel (with plenty of substance to discuss). The novel relates the story of Gabriel Quinn, a scientist who works for Domidion, a multinational conglomerate guided by the almighty dollar. Abruptly leaving his job, Gabriel heads for Samaritan Bay where a man-made environmental disaster had occurred several years ago. It also is the home of the former Smoke River Reserve, where his mother and sister lived. As Gabriel invented the bacterium responsible for killing many residents of Samaritan Bay and destroying its ecosystem, Gabriel feels guilty and full of despair. The only bright lights in his world are the stray dog that stays by his side, the local eccentric Nicholas Crisp who rents him his trailer, and the intriguing Mara who reminds him of the allure of the mysterious female species.
Members of my book club were delighted by the eccentric character of Nicholas Crisp and his unique vocabulary and agenerous heart (with a picnic basket that never runs out of food). When invited for coffee, Crisp responds that “it’s such generosities as what sparkles a day.” He admits that he puts a pot of coffee on every morning “for courtesy’s sake and in hopes of luring passing souls into critique and conversation.” Mara, a feisty indigenous artist who has a scarred past, is involved with a tenuous relationship with Gabriel. She brazenly inquires: “I was just curious if someone who is trying to commit suicide has any interest in sex?” Her sassy dialogue is reminiscent of King’s CBC radio show, The Dead Dog Café Comedy Hour. The villainous character of Dorian Asher, the CEO of Domidion, was also fascinating… Asher serves as a shining example of the destructive nature of capitalism. The CEO ignores wrongdoing and tries to spin it in a positive light. He teaches us that if you repeat a lie often enough it becomes the truth and that “if you can’t convince them, confuse them.” Yet even this villain is vulnerable. The reader sees him suffer from a mysterious illness, watches his marriage flounder, and suspects that Dorian’s overspending is actually a sign of weakness or mental instability caused by stress.
I invite you to read this intriguing book and decide for yourself whether the ending is truly hopeful, and whether the residents of Samaritan Bay will find their way home, and move from a group of disparate individuals to a true community.
At the time of our book club meeting in September 2015, there did not seem to be any discussion questions available through the publisher or any literary websites. If you are considering this title for your book club, we invite you to adopt some of the questions developed by Guelph Public Library.
Did you find this novel engaging or depressing?
How responsible is Gabriel Quinn for the environmental tragedy at Samaritan Bay?
What is the significance of the book’s title, The Back of the Turtle?
Is Nicholas Crisp a mythic character?
What are the novel’s main themes?
Did you find the ending of the book hopeful and optimistic?
Can the actions of Domidion and Dorian Asher be justified?
The environmental crisis in this novel stems from the misuse of an organism that was genetically modified. Are you concerned about the genetic modification of product components already on our grocery store shelves?
The structure of the novel is relatively complex. The viewpoint shifts in alternating chapters and the story moves back and forth through time. Do you favour one character’s perspective over another?
Are there elements of magical realism in the novel?
What was your favorite part of the novel?
What do you know about the author?
If you have read other books by this author, how does this book compare?