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Book Reviews Review: John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down is a full-on emotional bleed out

Title
Turtles All the Way Down
Author
John Green
Publisher
Dutton Books
Pages
286
Price
$25.99

It has been almost six years since John Green's last book. In teen years, that's several lifetimes. But a writing hiatus is not the same as a creative hiatus, and that's evident in Green's astonishingly high productivity for a supposedly dormant literary genius. Since the release of his megabestseller The Fault in Our Stars in 2012, Green has consistently created content for three YouTube channels and a podcast, raised millions of dollars for charity with the Project For Awesome, co-founded the online video conference Vidcon, and was named one of TIME's 100 Most Influential People. Let this long list prove that John Green is singularly deserving of the LL Cool J lyric, "Don't call it a comeback."

And it's because Green has been so accessible over various social-media platforms that we know he has struggled with both writing this novel and mental illness. Turtles All the Way Down is a story about Aza, a 16-year-old girl locked in a constant cycle of doubting her own free will and disgust with the natural functions of her body. Many authors have tackled mental illness and what Aza calls "the spiral," an inescapable descent of intrusive thoughts. But Green does more than write about; he endeavours to write inside, making explicit attempts to describe the non-sensorial and inexplicable nature of the spiral. He brings readers on the terrifying slide down with Aza, to a place even scarier than rock bottom because it's both unknowable and undefinable.

Turtles All the Way Down is a full-on emotional bleed out, but it doesn't quite start out that way. It begins with a huge serving of Green-ese, his trademark style full of witty repartee and language that is so precise, so measured and so eloquent that you struggle to determine if it's actually profound, or just profound enough to be quoted on a notebook in a bookstore that no longer sells books. Open Turtles, point to any line and you'll find a quote fit for licensing. Aza sends her childhood friend and new crush Davis a text worthy of Descartes: "I is the hardest word to define." She muses during a canoe ride, "I was so good at being a kid, and so terrible at being whatever I was now." When Aza and her best friend get involved in solving the mysterious disappearance of Davis's billionaire father, it's hard not to wonder if things will descend into madcap rather than madness.

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The Nancy Drew element and casual profundity may make it seem that Green doesn't capture the realism of being a teen with his hyperaware, hyperintelligent and hyperverbose characters. But he captures something deeper than adolescent realism in Turtles All the Way Down: He captures the essential truth of those difficult sensations that are normally impossible to explain – such as pain, for instance. Aza repeatedly muses on how difficult it is to communicate her suffering: "Maybe we invented metaphor as a response to pain. Maybe we needed to give shape to the opaque, deep-down pain that evades both sense and senses."

Green also takes this novel beyond the cerebral, and as soon as you start to notice the shift to more a visceral and clawing place, it's too late. You are adrift in the realization that you are inside of a thing that definitely doesn't turn out happy, and might not even turn out okay. After what should be a romantic moment with Davis, Aza is incapacitated with panic about the bacteria in her body, thinking, "I am revolting, but I couldn't recoil from myself because I was stuck inside myself." You start to wonder if you want Aza to keep living like this, and that is a dark place to be as a reader. Then you wonder if the mystery of Davis's father is going to have a satisfying ending and feel even more disgusted with yourself for wondering about that when your hero is dying in front of you.

So why lose precious sleep and fluids (specifically, tears and sweat if you're a teen encountering these big, crushing questions about self for the first time) over this book? Well, John Green hasn't created a book as much as he's created a place – a place to have your most indefinable and grotesque thoughts articulated, to ponder the disconnected reality you experience when you can't actually remember how you got to school or work, to acknowledge the times when your body feels like a disgusting cage, even as it does the vital work to keep you alive. No matter where you are on the spiral – and we're all somewhere – Green's novel makes the trip, either up or down, a less solitary experience.

Shannon Ozirny writes a monthly column about young-adult books, Grown Up-ish, for The Globe and Mail.

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