* CONTAINS SPOILERS
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.