Thursday, February 5, 2009

Turtle Valley by Gail Anderson-Dargatz

I have been wanting to read Turtle Valley for a while now. Since I knew it existed, anyway. Years ago, while still in high school, I read Anderson-Dargatz's The Cure for Death By Lightning and loved it. So I've been wanting to get my hands on other books by her, but it's been one of those things that has been in the back of my mind rather than actually on my to-read pile.

Anyway, I was able to grab Turtle Valley off the shelf for myself while picking something else up for a patron, because I felt like it was a good time to read it.

It's dark. It's very dark. It's suspenseful and foreboding. We start the book with a supernatural threat, the threat of fire, and the impending death of Katrine's father. Death constantly hangs over this novel like a haze. The fire threatening Turtle Valley seems like a rather heavy-handed metaphor, but Anderson-Dargatz doesn't beat us over the heads with it. It just adds to the atmosphere of oppression. There is a ghost story, a couple of love triangles, the aftermath of brain injury, and the inevitable unveiling of some really painful family secrets.

Now, those of you who know my reading tastes might suspect that I really didn't like this novel, especially given that when I was over halfway through I was 95% sure that a happy ending wasn't in the cards, and I do love my happy endings. Not so. I really enjoyed it. It was both beautiful and harsh, very like its setting. I loved the strength of the characters -- the strength with which they appear on the page (Anderson-Dargatz really loves each of them, you can tell) and the interior strength each of them has to keep going. I don't feel frustrated with them for making stupid decisions, because each character is flawed in a perfectly believable way -- they are flawed, but they aren't stupid.

What was really interesting about reading this book was that I read it on the heels of Range of Motion, and both contain the stories of women looking after a partner who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Now, the main obvious difference is that Lainey does not have to deal with Jay being awake and changed, but instead he is completely unresponsive; Katrine deals with the aftermath of Ezra's stroke while he is awake and functioning, but dramatically changed from the man she married. And in Katrine's case, things are really not going well. Her relationship with Ezra is crumbling, partially because of the changes in him, but largely because Katrine finds the weight of being a caretaker saps her energy and ability to feel like anything but a caretaker. I have no idea what that role must be like, and I hope I never have to face the choices she faces.

Now, this book is labeled magic realism. I'm not sure I know exactly what it means, although I've used that label for a number of things I've read. The elements of the supernatural are woven throughout the story without seeming strange, and I guess that's what I would call magic realism -- the story isn't about the magic itself, it's just present. Really, when it comes down to it, this is a good old-fashioned ghost story, complete with horror and beauty and oppressive suspense. The suspense actually lead to me putting the book down for a couple of days about three chapters from the end, because I suspected that things were about to get extremely effed up. In essence, I was putting my hands over my ears during the campfire story. I am a chicken.

But in the end, it didn't get quite as effed up as I apparently hoped it would. This is maybe a statement on me, because I don't think it's necessarily a statement on Anderson-Dargatz's writing. The ending followed from everything that came before, and was definitely congruent. It's hard to say exactly what disappointed me without giving anything away. My problem with tragic endings wasn't the problem here. The ending wasn't particularly happy, or unhappy -- it just was, which is exactly as it should be. I think what happened is that I maybe built myself up for something different, bigger, scarier -- and that was a mistake, because the book itself wasn't necessarily doing that. I'd be interested to hear if anyone else has read this book, and what they thought of the ending.

Overall, I think parts of the book were masterful. The suspense in particular, and the characters, and the setting were all just fantastic. I don't know that it's as strong as I remember The Cure for Death by Lightning being, but that might be the passage of time elevating one over the other. The thing is, Anderson-Dargatz doesn't shy from portraying either cruelty or pain, of the common sort that humans regularly inflict upon one another. And while I am glad I read the book, I don't think I could convince myself to read it again.

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