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September 10, 2007

Turtle Valley by G. Anderson-Dargatz

Gail Anderson-Dargatz’ latest novel Turtle Valley reminded me of Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook. No small words are these. Though their books remain worlds apart in sensibility and accessibility, Anderson-Dargatz writes similarly to Watson of desperately stunted people rendered smaller amidst a harsh and aggressive environment. She evokes the same ghostly presences, ambiguous in their nature, and she can also write downright spooky. Anderson-Dargatz’ book has far more popular appeal than Watson’s, but she practices the same art of witholding, letting what can be sensed tell the story. A quick internet search reveals that Anderson-Dargatz has been inextricably stuck with the tag Northwest Pacific Gothic, which is dramatic but makes sense to me. In tone I found Turtle Valley was also reminiscent of Eden Robinson’s Monkey Beach.

I’ve not read Gail Anderson-Dargatz’ earlier novels A Cure for Death by Lightning or A Recipe for Bees, but I do know that Turtle Valley is a descendent of the former. Beth Weeks’ daughter Kat is the subject of this new book, which takes place against the backdrop of a mass evacuation due to forest fire in BC’s interior. Kat has come with her husband and son to help her parents clear out their home before the fire comes down into their valley, and in the course of sorting through her parents’ accumulations, she discovers things about her family’s past that she never knew. History is thus disturbed, but Kat’s present is also in need of sorting, as she struggles in her relationship to husband Ezra who has become a different person since his stroke. To complicate matters further, she finds herself having feelings once again for a man from her past.

The fire metaphors are hard to resist: rekindling, old flame. Fire is pervasive throughout the text, and provides perfect imagery– particularly at the book’s conclusion. Anderson-Dargatz’ writing is strong, absolutely beautiful in spots. Her treatment of everyday objects is particularly admirable, and underlined by the photos of said objects accompanying each chapter, showing the reverence with which simple things can be treated, and the meaning that is invested in them with time. To understand Kat and her family’s history through these things is a fascinating process, and yet in the end something about it troubled me. The same thing that troubles me with any narrative in which a character finds a box of stuff that tells her all the answers. Now Kat is certainly in need of clues– her mother is entering the initial stages of dementia, her father is terminally ill– but somehow it seems too easy for her to assemble stories of such gravity. Tidiness is perhaps my most frequent gripe with fiction, and I was disappointed to have to call it here, however slightly, for a book I enjoyed so much otherwise.

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