The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King



A devastating environmental catastrophe near Samaritan Bay has sickened and killed people at a local First Nations Reserve and wiped out wildlife. Gabriel, a scientist who worked for the corporation responsible for the disaster, arrives in what is now a ghost town to kill himself over his involvement in the death of so many people. On his arrival he meets Nicolas, a loner attempting to maintain some kind of connection between the people who remain, and Mara, an artist who once lived on the Reserve and grieves for her family who died there. Together, these new friends put together the puzzle pieces of their lives and lift each other from the despair that has consumed them. Meanwhile, Dorian Asher, the CEO of the corporation, finds himself with the inconvenience of dealing with an environmental disaster and the resulting PR crisis, strange health issues, a wife who can only talk about buying property in Orlando, and of all things, the indecision over where to eat!

The Back of the Turtle is well-written and timely with recent oil spills and contentious debate over refining oil sands in the news. Thomas King deftly uses humour and a light touch to write about issues such as environmental destruction and the responsibility of multi-national corporations, the poverty and displacement of First Nations people, mental illness and bereavement. I love how the beautiful Native creation myth about the woman who fell from the sky serves as the backbone to this story about leaving and belonging, struggle and peace, death and renewal.

As much as I enjoyed delving into the stories of Gabriel and Mara, I found the story as a whole lackluster and long. Out of all the book’s characters, I liked the bad guy the most. Dorian is self-absorbed, preoccupied with buying things and staving off boredom, yet I laughed at his quirks and awkwardness, enjoying his part in The Back of the Turtle the most. For this reason, I was a bit confused about what I was meant to take away from this story. What message is Thomas King sending to readers by making the villain a clown? Or is that the punch line?

Although the ending was a fairly happy one and full of hope, so many questions remained unanswered for me, such as why did Gabriel’s mother and sister never try to find him, what happened to Sonny’s father, what was up with the spooky hot springs and the strange attachment Nicolas had to them? Most importantly: how the heck did the massive turtle escape Domidion’s headquarters in Toronto and show up in British Columbia? Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by The Back of the Turtle‘s tone and originality, but otherwise was mostly underwhelmed.

3/5 Stars


7 comments on “The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

  1. Naomi
    November 6, 2014

    I have been curious about this book, because a while ago I started reading Green Grass Running Water, but stopped in the middle to read library books and review books. However, I don’t feel the desire to go back to it. I was enjoying it well enough, but I felt like it was a bit drawn out, and I was confused about parts of it. He uses the creation story in that book as well, and maybe it’s because I’m not far enough into it yet, but so far there doesn’t seem to be a connection to the story. I will probably eventually finish it, but I feel like you about it right now- underwhelmed. I have heard so many good things about it, though, so maybe I just need to keep going. It sounds like the tone of the two books are similar – light and humorous. Have you read anything else by Thomas King?


  2. ebookclassics
    November 6, 2014

    This was my first Thomas King book, so I didn’t have anything to compare to it. Funny you should mention Green Grass Running Water because I think I read somewhere that a character from that book appears in this book, but I don’t know who.


  3. Brian Joseph
    November 7, 2014

    This does sound original. Too bad that it has as many shortcomings as you mention.

    There is a certain type of unanswered question that I think is acceptable for an author to leave. However, the questions that you list seem like they are the type that should be answered.


    • ebookclassics
      November 7, 2014

      I probably can live without getting answers to some questions, but I would really like to know the logistics of the turtle’s arrival! 🙂 However, I assume the turtle’s appearance was probably supposed to be mostly symbolic.


  4. Naomi
    November 18, 2014

    What do you think of the fact that this book just won the GG’s Award for fiction? Deserving, or not? (I was hoping for Sweetland, but, admittedly, haven’t read the others,)


    • ebookclassics
      November 18, 2014

      I was surprised the book won, but can concede that Thomas King is a good writer and this book was very unique. I haven’t read it, but I get the impression everyone loves Sweetland and absolutely no one (except me and book critics, LOL) has read The Back of the Turtle!


      • Naomi
        November 18, 2014

        Haha, yes, you’re the only one I knew of who had read it. There aren’t even a lot of reviews on Goodreads yet. Now that he’s won, though, more people will read it. Most of the Goodreads reviews are positive, though. All of his books have good ratings. I really should finish the one I started a while ago.


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