Sixteen-year-old Aza never intended to pursue the mystery of fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett, but there’s a hundred-thousand-dollar reward at stake and her Best and Most Fearless Friend, Daisy, is eager to investigate. So together, they navigate the short distance and broad divides that separate them from Russell Pickett’s son, Davis.
Aza is trying. She is trying to be a good daughter, a good friend, a good student, and maybe even a good detective, while also living within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.
First published: 2017
I’ve been thinking about how to write a review for this book for over a week and I still don’t really know. Of course, you can never really be sure before reading a book, but I expected that Turtles All the Way Down had a lot of potential for becoming a new all time favourite – and I wasn’t wrong. I love this book with a fiery passion and it’s very close to my heart, and for quite personal reasons too. How the hell do you write a review for a book like that? You tell me!
So, I’m making this up as I go along, and I’ve decided that what I want to talk about is the importance of #ownvoices (= author and protagonist sharing a marginalised identity), particularly in stories with mental illness – because that’s what I know. That’s what made me excited about this book in the first place when John Green announced it. John suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder (something he’s talked about a lot), meaning he has first hand experience with mental illness.
I was really excited to read a YA book about mental illness written by someone who actually knows what it’s like. Now, let’s get one thing out of the way: I don’t have OCD. So I don’t know what that’s like. However, I do know what having anxiety feels like, and so much of what John wrote in Turtles resonated with me. Just reading the first few chapters felt like a relief, somehow. “Someone gets it.”
On every other page I came across a quote that made me go: “yes!” It wasn’t always something that I’d felt personally. Often it was just that I understood. This is what mental illness can do to you. It’s difficult to talk about it, not just because there’s still a taboo, or that it can be emotional, but also because of the nature of language.
One of the challenges with pain–physical or psychic–is that we can really only approach it through metaphor. It can’t be represented the way table or a body can. In some ways, pain is the opposite of language.
It’s things like this that made me fall in love with the book. I’m a fan of John’s writing style regardless of what he writes (more or less), but when he writes beautiful things that ring true so much for me… It just takes it to a whole other level.
I’ve now talked about some of the positive things Turtles made me feel, but let’s not forget it’s also a pretty heartbreaking novel. At least, to me it was. I cared incredibly much about Aza as a character, and reading about what her illness does to her sometimes almost physically hurt. When she’s at her most low, the desperation just oozes off the page. At one point she says the following:
“Actually, the problem is that I can’t lose my mind,” I said. “It’s inescapable.”
You can really feel this in her story. She wants so desperately to be “normal” (whatever that may mean) and, most of all, to not be sick, but she just doesn’t see a way out.
And that feeling is what makes #ownvoices so important when it comes to novels with mental illness. You don’t know what it’s like unless you’ve lived it. And it’s clear from every single page that John Green has indeed lived this. You can’t write a novel like this otherwise, and I wholeheartedly believe that.
Turtles has only strengthened my belief that #ownvoices novels need to be given more prominence. It can do so much good! This novel, for example, has the potential of helping teenagers (and others) living with this illness to feel less alone, and to become aware of the fact that there are others out there who suffer from the same thing they are suffering from.
I know this isn’t your typical review – I didn’t say anything about things like the plot or the characters, but I felt like this was the type of post I wanted to write about Turtles. This is a special book to me, and I just wanted to tell you guys why. Now, go read it and find out for yourself!