Jessica Grant’s debut novel, Come, Thou Tortoise, was published in 2009. As far as I know, there was nothing like it in Newfoundland literature before and there has been nothing like it after. In the wider world, there are books it could be compared to—The Curious Instance of the Dog in the Night-Time, for example—but, then again, its very Newfoundlandiness makes it different from those, too.
Why should you want to read Come, Thou Tortoise? Well, it is very funny and very sad. It’s also much smarter than you might initially give it credit for—it’s not for nothing that the title is an allusion to Shakespeare (specifically, it’s from The Tempest, when Prospero is calling Caliban to make his first appearance). It’s a very funny, very weird, very sad, very loving book. It’s an exuberant text, full of stuff, in love with language, in love with the world, in love with improbable and atypical forms of love, of being.
In love with language? It’s almost an understatement. In addition to literary allusions that span Donne to Rimbaud, the book delights in puns, wordplay, productive linguistic errors and misreadings; these might strike some readers as cloying or cutesy or corny, at first. But, if you take the book on its own terms, it becomes clear as you read on just how deeply ingrained these word games are in the emotional lives and worldviews of the core characters, of the family and community and microculture they have created for one another through sharing these language games. Even the protagonist’s name and identity are tied up in these productive puns: she is “Audrey” but she is also, to family and friends, “Oddly” – which is how she sees and makes sense of (reads) the world: oddly.
One of the very first puns a reader encounters serves as a good example for this kind of thing: Come, Thou Tortoise begins with Audrey/Oddly. She is racing home from Portland, OR, to her hometown, St. John’s, NL, because her father is unexpectedly in a “comma. Sorry, coma.” Oddly tells us how she finds the concept of the comma comforting; a comma is a pause in a sentence, a temporary stop, but the sentence keeps going afterwards. There is life after a comma. She is rushing home to deliver a heart-moving, (literally) rousing bedside speech, and she imagines, if she gets the speech right, that her father will wake up. This might strike the first-time reader as ‘quirky,’ and quirk is a difficult spice to cook with. But this is all in the novel’s first few pages, when the world of the text is still unfamiliar; as one reads on, it becomes clear just how much power language, narrative, and ritual have for the little queer community that is Oddly’s home in St. John’s. Making punny changes in language becomes a way of tweaking its power, bending it, perhaps, to a more favourable path, if only for a time.
This little community of disobedient readers (in the style of Eve Sedgwick) could exist anywhere, in any town or city in the world. But it’s particularly fortuitous that it exists in St. John’s; Come, Thou Tortoise is a love-letter to the weird little city on the edge of the continent, but, like everything else, it refuses to play it straight. The cultural and physical geography of the ‘real’ St. John’s is constantly warped, for the delight or comfort or satisfaction of the people at the novel’s heart. At the same time, Newfoundland’s relative obscurity and unimportance on the global scale make it a safe harbour where these disobedient discursive practices can flourish, can create that little queer community.
I could go on—especially since Come, Thou Tortoise is the focus of one of the chapters of my dissertation (so I’ll almost certainly come back to this book in the future here on the blog). For now I’ll say that if you can handle the deep punning, and if you’re interested in queer new imaginings of St. John’s, and if you’re looking for something that’s by turns very funny and very sad, you should pick up this book.
Also, one of the narrators is an actual tortoise.