Two London strangers encounter each other at the Aquarium on multiple occasions, and they begin to suspect that the other is having the same thought: that the Aquarium's two green sea turtles, confined to their small tank, ought to be set free. Each of them is lonely, isolated, and the possibility that the other shares those feelings of loneliness and isolation is somehow both thrilling and threatening.
Turtle Diary takes the form of alternating diary entries by these two strangers, William G. and Naeara H. He is a divorcee working in an independent bookshop; she is a children's book author and illustrator who is moderately famous for writing a series of books about a character named Gillian Vole. (Of course, Hoban himself first found success writing the Frances the Badger series.) They are more apprehensive about finding company in each other than they are about finding company in the turtles--and numerous other animals, who seem to live more naturally and comprehensibly than human beings:
I was looking at a book on shamanism at the shop, by Mircea Eliade. In Siberia and South America, wherever they have shamans, they're always the unstable, the epileptics, the weird ones of the group, people prone to terrors and depression as I am. But unlike me they get initiated into power and a place of importance, they become seers and healers. There's something between them and animals, a bond, a connection, channels of power. Speech with animals, magical transformations. Could I be a turtle. Could I through an act of ecstasy swim unafraid and never lost, finding, finding? Swimming with Pangaea printed on my brain and bones, the ancient continent that was before the land masses drifted apart. That's part of it, too: there were no seas between, the land was one, there was one thing, unbroken. Now there are thousands of miles of open water and the strong ones, the swimmers, the unlost, are driven to trace the paths between, maintain the ancient connection. I don't know whether I can keep going. A turtle doesn't have to decide every morning whether to keep on bothering, it just carries on. Maybe that's why man kills everything: envy.
To Hoban's credit, Turtle Diary refuses to follow the paths of expectation. William and Naeara don't fall in love; they never really rise above the level of strangers, in many ways alike but in others inscrutably different. They come together to set the turtles free, and with the help of a sympathetic Aquarium employee, they do so, but this act of compassion doesn't come at the end of the novel and it doesn't fix all of their problems. The turtles remain for them a symbol of possibility:
In them was the place they were swimming to, and at the end of their swimming it would loom up out of the sea, real, solid, no illusion. They could be stopped of course, they might be killed by sharks or fisherman but they would die on the way to where they wanted to be. I'd never know if they'd go there or not, for me they would always be swimming.
But the turtles remain turtles, and William G. and Naeara H. remain William G. and Naeara H., the source of their own kinds of soup. They go on having to decide "whether to bother every morning," and whatever human companionship they find along the way is hard-won. Hoban refuses to overstate the parallels between the two protagonists and the turtles themselves, and though something is achieved on the turtle's behalf, human nature makes similar achievements elusive for William and Naeara, and perhaps never quite possible or as fulfilling as the return to Ascension Island. William and Naeara drift away from each other after the turtles are freed, and they probably never see each other again.
Turtle Diary shares some of the mystic habitation in ordinary things that characterizes Kleinzeit. Of the four Hoban novels I've read, these are the only two that seem in any way like they were written by the same person. Turtle Diary is a much more muted and subtle work than Kleinzeit, but it possesses a power that comes from the recognition of the quiet desperation that characterizes much of our modern lives. It reminded me of Georg Lukacs' idea of transcendental homelessness: unlike the turtles, the beetles, and Gillian Vole, we have no ancient instinct that tells us where and how to be.