Re­claim­ing his CROWN

King’s re­turn to fic­tion of­fers rich, mas­ter­ful sto­ry­telling

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

SINCE the ap­pear­ance of his first novel, Medicine River, almost 25 years ago, Thomas King has be­come Canada’s most wide-rang­ing and best-known writer of nov­els, sto­ries, chil­dren’s books, es­says, films and TV pro­grams that recre­ate, with wry and wise com­pas­sion, the dilem­mas that have be­dev­iled the cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal lives, myths, and re­al­i­ties of abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple in North Amer­ica. And there­fore of all of us. As the ti­tles of two of his most cel­e­brated books sig­nal — the novel Green Grass, Run­ning Wa­ter (1993) and A Coy­ote Colum­bus Story (1994) — King’s fic­tions of­ten art­fully in­ter­min­gle na­tive and Euro­pean his­tory and myth to of­fer pow­er­ful por­traits and cri­tiques of clash­ing cul­tures and his­to­ries. The Back of the Tur­tle, his first novel in 15 years, re­turns to this fer­tile ground with an all-too-rel­e­vant rep­re­sen­ta­tion of cor­po­ra­tized sci­en­tific ex­per­i­men­ta­tion that leads to en­vi­ron­men­tal ex­ploita­tion and to catas­tro­phe. But if The Back of the Tur­tle gives us King’s bleak­est, most apoc­a­lyp­tic fic­tional land­scape, there is also a steady un­der­cur­rent of hope cours­ing through the novel.

Tellingly, the novel’s ti­tle al­ludes to a well-known na­tive story that has sur­faced in other King fic­tions about Sky Woman, who is saved from a fa­tal fall earth­ward by the cradling back of a gi­ant tur­tle. Here, that story res­onates against the tragic dev­as­ta­tion of a coastal area in B.C., where a sci­en­tif­i­cally en­gi­neered de­fo­liant is ac­ci­den­tally loosed upon an en­tire ecosys­tem, killing almost the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of a re­serve as well as all the area’s flora and fauna — in­clud­ing the thou­sands of tur­tles that used to at­tract throngs of tourists to their breed­ing site on the beach. As in other King sto­ries, this one is nar­rated to fine ef­fect through the al­ter­nat­ing points of view and his­to­ries of a se­ries of op­posed but re­lated voices in­hab­it­ing the novel. At the novel’s open­ing Gabriel — the al­lu­sion to an an­gelic fore­bear is no mis­take — has fled Do­mid­ion, the cor­po­ra­tion where he worked as a lead sci­en­tist, to re­turn to the re­serve where the company’s prod­ucts dev­as­tated his ori­gins and forced his ini­tial up­root­ing. His be­lated in­sight into the tragic ef­fects of his ex­per­i­ment has driven him to re­turn to die; how­ever, his in­ten­tion is way­laid by a se­ries of other char­ac­ters, voices, vi­sions, and events. Mara, for ex­am­ple, an artist who as­pired to go to Paris but only got as far as Toronto — and, like Gabriel, has lost con­tact with her fam­ily and her roots — has also re­turned to the re­serve, where she paints por­traits of her lost an­tecedents and has Gabriel help her hang them in the aban­doned homes. And then there’s Sonny, the fa­ther­less man-child with a ham­mer who roams the beach and the re­serve look­ing for sal­vage and be­comes, un­wit­tingly but in­tu­itively, one of the agents of the com­mu­nity’s hoped-for res­ur­rec­tion. (Read­ers will at­tune them­selves to the prove­nance both of Sonny and “Dad,” his ab­sent but all-see­ing, ever-present Fa­ther.) Mean­while, back in Toronto, the har­ried mega-mil­lon­aire CEO of Do­mid­ion, one Do­rian Asher (again, King’s names are al­ways care­fully crafted), fights a des­per­ate se­ries of bat­tles against his own fail­ing body, be­set by the in­sid­i­ous ad­vances of un­named af­flic­tions, and against the storm of me­dia at­ten­tion un­leashed on Do­mid­ion as yet another spill of deadly ef­flu­ent es­capes from its hold­ing ponds in north­ern Al­berta to de­stroy the Athabasca river sys­tem. Do­rian must grap­ple, too, with the co­in­ci­dence that has linked Gabriel’s sud­den dis­ap­pear­ance from Do­mid­ion with that of a large tur­tle, sud­denly van­ished from the aquar­ium that was the ob­ject of Gabriel’s trans­fixed gaze. As the char­ac­ters’ back-sto­ries are filled in, faint but grow­ing sig­nals of hope be­gin to sur­face later in the novel. Big Red, pa­tri­arch of the tur­tle clan that used to pop­u­late the beach, re­turns. The crabs, mol­lusks and anemones that nour­ished their larger brethren be­gin to reap­pear. Sonny builds a tower out of sal­vaged scraps that stands on the beach like a bea­con beck­on­ing to the fu­ture. The faith­ful and gifted dog, Sol­dier, and his cheer­fully cryp­tic stew­ard, Crisp — he of the gnomic, Scots-in­flected ut­ter­ances who gives Sol­dier half an ap­ple in the novel’s open­ing “Pro­logue” (read­ers, be alert) — at­tend many of the por­ten­tous events. And Gabriel and Mara be­gin to form a con­tested but po­ten­tially warm re­la­tion­ship. As the novel’s epi­graph sug­gests — it’s ded­i­cated to “...the songs and the singers” — The Back of the Tur­tle is ul­ti­mately an in­vo­ca­tion of the hope that might at­tend us in our cur­rent dire state. The 12 shad­owy na­tive apos­tles Gabriel and oth­ers see ris­ing out of the sea; Mara’s and Gabriel’s re­turn to their home ground; the in­evitable com­min­gling of Sky Woman’s fall and sal­va­tion with events nar­rated in other para­bles, gar­dens, and for­bid­den fruits: all th­ese sto­ries sing, fi­nally, to ev­ery liv­ing thing. Per­haps the tur­tle’s back might yet be broad enough for us all. Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture scholar Neil Bes­ner is provost and vice-pres­i­dent, aca­demic and in­ter­na­tional

at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg.

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