four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
22-May-June-2006
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0

A-TimothyWhen 18th-century English naturalist Gilbert White, author of The Natural History of Selborne, adopted Timothy the Turkish tortoise, he recorded his occasional observations about Timothy’s habits. More than two centuries later, Verlyn Klinkenborg tries to fathom what Timothy (a she, not a he, as White thought) really thought about life. White called Timothy "the most abject reptile and torpid of beings," but Timothy, of course, feels differently. She relates her eight-day expedition outside White’s garden, appreciates "creeping fogs in the pastures," and holds a generally dim opinion of people ("stilt-gaited beasts"). More importantly, unlike us, she serenely experiences the passing of time with neither pretension nor aspiration.
Knopf. 192 pages. $16.95. ISBN: 0679407286

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[The] observed becomes the observer, issuing a sometimes bitter, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious critique of the relationship between humanity and nature in the Enlightenment, the summit of Western hubris. … What makes Klinkenborg’s foray unusual is that it has come in a novel rather than a think-tank policy paper, conservation group report, or media exposé." Robert Braile

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Technically, of course, all this lovely stuff comes to us by Klinkenborg casting his voice through the mouth of the tortoise. But something rather magical occurs in these pages early on. Our human blindfolds fall away." Alan Cheuse

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Timothy is a triumph of imagination and execution. … Wisdom belongs to those of us who observe, who wonder, who think. Who can escape the shell that culture creates around us." Daniel Dyer

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Timothy is admirable on several levels, from its mastery of character and voice to the dexterity of its perspective-shifts as it examines the metaphysical questions that arise from the 18th-century Christian minister’s observation of nature. … [The] novel is one of the most charming meditations on a creature’s relationship to the Earth that I have read." Wingate Packard

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The tortoise’s notes are not mere stream of semi-consciousness, although they are that, too. They form a continuing argument with the improving 18th-century spirit, carried on from ground level." Stuart Ferguson

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Most of all, Klinkenborg imbues Timothy with a profound sense of apartness, a lonely being at home in the space of a singular shell. It is the author’s greatest triumph: He makes us believe we are reading not just the thoughts of a tortoise but those of a Turkish tortoise, uprooted from the craggy coast of the Mediterranean to spend cruel, solitary winters in a British garden." Josh Kun

Critical Summary

Although Timothy technically lives on a shelf in London’s Natural History Museum, in Klinkenborg’s hands she’s alive and kicking in White’s garden. On the editorial board of the New York Times and author of "The Rural Life" column and three books, Klinkenborg (through Timothy’s voice) turns small observations about nature into powerful ideas about beauty, nature, humanity, and our role in the natural world. In wise, opinionated, and truncated language, Timothy captures the vagaries and hypocrisies of humans while stressing his own, isolated life. Timothy, "a work of both speculative naturalism and speculative biography" (Los Angeles Times), is natural history at its best: thoughtful, meditative, and even magical.