Turtles All The Way Down- John Green (Review)

Hey, so this blog is a book review blog too now I guess? A theatre reviewer with no theatre needs something to cast opinions on I guess.


But as part of the introspection of this madness I’ve come to realise my best work is not the formulaic by the numbers reviewing that probably gets you bylines in cool places. But instead the slightly more rambling a lot more personal takes on things. So that’s what we’re going to do.


Talking of all this madness, one of the (many, many) strange coping mechanisms or distraction tools I’ve used is the discovery of Hank and John Green’s ‘Vlog Brothers’ series. Forgive me for being about a decade behind the internet. Also forgive me anyone who sees my YouTube history for 2020, but that’s another story.  And as a result I can proudly say: I finally know which one of them is which. No really for a while, despite having read their books I was never entirely sure which one was which. Actually that’s not entirely true I realised Hank was the one I’d followed for his colonoscopy youtube video (high five a famous person talking about ulcerative colitis).


Anyway enough of my pandemic coping mechanisms and Hank Green’s intestine, this is a book review.


Actually, pandemic coping mechanisms aren’t unconnected, given the book deals with anxiety, something that in some measure we’ve all encountered in recent months. What Turtles All the Way Down deals with though is the kind of chronic anxiety a lot of us deal with as well. But there’s a key difference between that and the circumstantial anxiety that might have, in recent months, given more people an insight into what that feels like. And that is that it isn’t going away.


And that’s the key to the crux of Green’s story, the parts that make it hit hardest.


The rest is a- and I don’t mean this with any slight- perfectly nice YA story about a series of slightly bizarre events against the backdrop of everyday High School life. And that’s exactly the gift of it. The main narrative sits around the strands of a local billionaire who has gone missing and left all his wealth to a lizard instead of his sons (We’ve all been there right?!) against the mystery element ‘Turtles’ is a traditional teenage narrative of struggling with boys (even more so when they’re the child of said billionaire, about to be ousted by a lizard), college applications and friendships.


That’s not to say that it’s simplistic, because it’s not. Green weaves in narrative threads about grief, class, inequality alongside a mix of reflections on friendship and navigating 21st-century young adult life. Even without exploring Aza’s mental health it would be a brilliant reflection on all those things.


Three particular strands resonated with me, looking back at my own teen self. The class narrative, in which Aza’s best friend Daisy feels out of step as she’s not as well off as Aza’s fairly middle-class upbringing. I wish there had been books that said that out loud when I was a teen. Secondly, Daisy and Aza write/read fanfiction…and there’s nobody mocking them for it. I get that John Green gets that world. But again I wish there was a book that normalised that when I was a kid. But given I’ve just picked up my fanfiction bullshit, I mean hobby, again, it was nice as a grown-up to see that be considered just a normal hobby. Finally, that Aza has a dead parent (not a major spoiler, it pre-dates the narrative) and that while no doubt it contributes to both her and her Mom’s mental health it’s not seen as the reason Aza has a mental illness. As a card-carrying member of the teenage-dead-Dad club I just get exhausted by the fact everything


But parallel to the main narrative is the exploration of Aza’s inner life. The way her anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder consume her thoughts, and her life. Green has talked about how talking about his own mental illness (also anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder) is so difficult because language often escapes it. And it’s true, that there is no rational language for something often so irrational. For something so real to the person experiencing it and often so ridiculous to someone outside of it. But in Aza’s thought process he captures it, in a way that lets those who understand feel seen, and those who don’t perhaps peer behind the curtain a little. As the books says;


‘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 a table or a body can. In some ways pain is the opposite of language.’


It is, ironically then,  hard to explain just how Green describes it perfectly in ‘Turtles’ it’s just this moment of although the way Aza’s personal experience differs from my own (and I assume to some degree Green’s) there is a moment of pure recognition, of thinking ‘Someone else sees it’ and in that of knowing you aren’t alone. It’s a difficult read, seeing all the things you try to pretend aren’t there reflected back at you by a character. For me the most chilling of moments- and I mean that literally- despite the current heat- is when we hear Aza’s narrative voice from the future. When you know she doesn’t escape it, that it gets better and worse and worse again. That her life will continue to be governed by it. And that honesty is cutting, but so, so welcome. I wish I’d had someone tell me in a book when I was 19 or 20, that yes this will be here forever, that it will hurt, it will affect your life. Because as difficult a reality as that is to face, it\’s a vital one to acknowledge. As someone looking back from 30-something life the lat thing I want is a book to say \’and then she grew up and it all went away\’ because, spoiler alert…it doesn\’t. And double spoiler alert, sometimes it gets worse. 


And that I think is the vital thing about Green’s exploration of mental illness, the acknowledgment that it is awful, affecting, all-consuming. And, it’s likely to be there forever. That’s essentially what the title metaphor alludes to, there’s no escaping it. It\’s part of you. And it’s not always ok, but it’s ok to acknowledge that. But acknowledge that it\’s hard. And weird, and messed up. I don\’t look at Aza\’s story and go \’oh yeah totally normal\’ I, the same as anyone who doesn\’t suffer from mental illness read her story and go \’man that is a mess\’ but it\’s a mess I recognise. Equally Aza doesn\’t want to be the mess she is, but isn\’t able to help herself. At least not yet. And Green\’s honesty that there will be times in the future she can, and times she can\’t. That your life, your brain chemistry might not fit a narrative that everyone wants to hear:

Everyone wanted me to feed them that story—darkness to light, weakness to strength, broken to whole. I wanted it, too.


And that\’s a scary thing to admit. But an important one. And instead of \’fixing\’ Aza in the story, instead, Green talks about how you learned to live with who you are, what life has dealt you. And for me, again as an old person looking back on a teenage life that felt hopeful. As crushingly cutting as it is to have someone acknowledge this will always be a \’problem\’ the idea of learning to live better with it at least is a hopeful one. 

You pick your endings and your beginnings. You get to pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don\’t choose what\’s in the picture, but you decide the frame’


And that perhaps is the best way to look at it- how you pick the frame matters. How you decide to look at it. Talk about it. Because it might be ‘turtles all the way down’ but it’s how you learn to live with the turtles. Or mix your metaphors to talk about them.


We’ve all got a little messier in our heads thanks to 2020. I remember looking at this book when it first came out, when I was working in a bookshop and always meaning to buy it. I’m a big fatalist when it comes to books and I feel like I read this one at the right time. We’re all a lot more isolated right now, and feeling like someone saw inside my head really helped.


Also I now 100% know which Green brother is which. Except for the time at the start of writing this when I had to double-check again. For which, they may judge me. 

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: