BOOK REVIEW / The dog from hell lies down: 'Turtle Moon' - Alice Hoffman: Macmillan, 14.99

IT'S MAY in Verity, Florida, when Mother Nature makes her children do crazy things. Sea turtles migrate across Main Street, the restaurants all serve Alligator Salad, flocks of fugitive parakeets take up residence on rooftops, and an angel named Bobby begins haunting the local Burger King. It's that 'difficult time of the year' when 'people who grew up in Verity often slip two aspirins into their cans of Coke; they wear sunglasses and avoid making any major decisions. They try not to quit their jobs, or smack their children, or run off to North Carolina with the serviceman who just fixed their VCR'.

Like Alice Hoffman's previous eight novels, Turtle Moon is about men, women and children trying to understand one another. They live in middle-American suburbs, shop in malls, watch trash TV, have trouble paying their bills, and sense a dark indefinable formlessness starting to creep into their lives.

In Hoffman's fictional universe, mundane reality is a place where fantastic things can and should happen.

This time Hoffman's cast of characters is wider and more varied than usual, and she spreads herself pretty thinly as a result. First there's 12-year-old Keith Rosen, 'the meanest boy in Verity', a casual shoplifter with a bad attitude and three school suspensions to his credit. His mother, Lucy, is a lot like the majority of mothers in town - divorced, lonely, and waiting to feel passionate about the right man.

Janey Bass works at the Hole-in-One, a local diner, along with her daughter, Shannon, with whom Bobby the Angel falls in love. Then there's Julian Cash (cousin to the deceased Bobby, and partially responsible for Bobby's death in an motor accident), who tracks people for a living with Arrow, his wild 'dog from hell'. Julian was raised by Miss Giles, the kind but irascible old woman who regularly adopts other people's neglected babies, and possesses more stoic fortitude and maternal righteousness than any reader will be able to stomach. Sound like bad soap opera? It gets worse.

Hoffman begins Turtle Moon by displaying her usual gifts - a lyrical sense of the ordinary, and a gentle willingness to show her readers a good time. But eventually this novel grows tiresome, saccharine and mechanical. When Keith witnesses the murder of his neighbour (who is herself yet another single mother trying to save her baby from bad people), he snatches the baby from the laundry-room before the killer can get to it and heads for the hills. By caring for the baby, Keith learns the responsibilities of being a good mother. Eventually he's recovered by Julian and the 'dog from hell' (who, of course, lies down like a lamb with the newly converted 'mean boy'), and Keith's mother; Lucy, decides to solve the murder herself to clear her son's name (not that anybody has actually charged Keith with the murder, or has even shown any compunction to).

By this point, characters don't develop anymore, but the plot merely unravels. Julian and Lucy fall in love and try to catch the murderer before the murderer returns to kill Keith; and the murderer conveniently never makes a stab at Keith (though he's had plenty of opportunities) until late in the novel, thus providing the major characters time to realise that loving one another may be difficult but, hell, love is what makes the world go round.

The biggest problem with Turtle Moon is that Hoffman is trying to write about what happens when evil is unleashed among good, 'down home' people, but she has no grasp whatsoever of evil. Her murderer is kept off-stage throughout the entire novel, and functions like a sort of inverted deus ex machina. He appears at the end just long enough to provide a quick cinematic bit of clarity (and thus perhaps pump-up the film-rights auction), reminding us that good is good because it refuses to be bullied by people like him. Like a straw dog, he only exists to be eliminated. His actions never make sense and his human motives are never explored.

Because she has no sense of human tragedy, Hoffman's characters tend to sacrifice themselves rather than suffer. In the tradition of Harriet Beecher Stowe, say, or Louisa May Alcott, Hoffman writes a brand of sentimental romance in which individual deaths are sublimated by a sense of transcendent human purpose. (Uncle Tom may die, for example, but only after teaching people about their emotional responsibilities to one another; his death is not in vain, because it reminds people about the 'family of mankind' to which they all belong.)

Even when Hoffman's novels are effective (and many of them are more effective than Turtle Moon), it's hard to read them without feeling lectured to. Kindly, of course, and in a wise, gentle tone - but lectured nevertheless. It's a world of oppressive and mythical benevolence, where the good moms like Lucy, Janey or Miss Giles all love their babies devotedly, no matter how badly those babies may misbehave; and whenever human tragedies make life seem confusing, love comes along to make sense of everything. It's a representation of life that parents like to draw over their children at night like a favourite blanket.

It's not an adult story, however, and in this case it does not produce an adult novel.

(Photograph omitted)

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