A man we know only as William G.—he's in his 40s, assistant in a London bookstore, divorced and lonely—is working away at a strange project when his landlady chances upon him:
"Mrs. Inchcliff was very pleased to see me active in the lumber-room. As soon as she heard me sawing she brought me a cup of tea. 'What're you making?' she said.
" 'Turtle crates,' I said. 'I'm going to steal three sea turtles from the London Zoo and put them into the sea.'
" 'Good,' she said. 'That's a good thing to do.' "
Jolly right it is: save the animals, save ourselves. That's the moral of an entirely lovely little novel that has come quietly from England. It's called Turtle Diary (Random House, $7.95), and its author, Russell Ho-ban, has written an argument for ecological sanity that many readers are likely to find vastly more persuasive and moving than any number of wildlife-group broadsides.
The novel is told in diary form, alternating passages from William G.'s diary and that of Neaera H.—a writer of children's books who is also in her 40s, also lonely. The two do not know each other, but both are drawn to the aquarium of the London Zoo and, from there, to the conviction that the giant turtles must be set free. Both have contemplated the "secret navigational art of the turtles"—their uncanny passage from feeding grounds in Brazil to breeding grounds on Ascension Island, 1,400 miles away—and both conclude that to keep them captive is an unspeakable cruelty. As Neaera observes, "The essence of it is that they can find something and they are not being allowed to do it. What more can you do to a creature, short of killing it, than prevent it from finding what it can find?"
Eventually William and Neaera meet, and independent convictions deepen into reluctant complicity. William builds the crates, rents a van, and he and Neaera safely deliver the turtles to the English Channel.
We do not know whether the turtles ever reach their eventual destination, but that is not the point. As Neaera writes, "They could be stopped, of course, they might be killed by sharks or fishermen but they would die on the way to where they wanted to be. I'd never know if they'd got there or not, for me they would always be swimming."
At first the meaning of their action fails to set in. "Launching the turtles didn't launch me," William says. "You can't do it with turtles." Yet what happens in his life, and Neaera's, proves him wrong: both become re-engaged to life, to vigorous feeling and to risk-taking. Like the turtles, both are swimming again.
Turtle Diary is an ecological statement—and a sound one. What's more important is that it is a marvelously subtle, witty work of fiction. It begins slowly, so be patient; let its various skeins ravel into place, and you will come to its final pages with what can only be described as joy.