Written by Kendall Talbot
Six years ago, John Green brought millions of readers to tears with his tragic, yet oddly comical story of two teenage cancer patients who, in spite of their ailments, were determined to experience love and life and everything in between. While The Fault in Our Stars dealt with the horrible effects of physical illness, Green’s new novel, Turtles All the Way Down, addresses a different category of illness: mental. The story’s sixteen-year-old protagonist, Aza “Holmsey” Holmes, suffers from severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, living in constant fear of the multitude of tiny microbes alive inside her body and the bodies of others. Her mental illness keeps Aza consistently and irrevocably stuck inside her own head, and for 286 beautifully written and heartbreakingly raw pages, we get to be stuck inside there with her.
In typical John-Green fashion, Turtles follows a couple of eccentric characters along an eccentric plotline that doesn’t actually turn out how the reader would expect. Defining characteristics include a fugitive billionaire, a tuatara (a species of reptile descended from dinosaurs), and a plethora of Star Wars references. At its core, however, the novel is arguably much darker and deeper than any of Green’s previous works. Mental illness is a subject that still makes many uncomfortable or upset. For others, mental illness simply doesn’t exist. But for Aza, and also Green, who suffers from OCD himself, mental illness is very real and a conversation that needs to be had. Turtles starts this imperative discussion with its young readers by placing them directly into Aza’s mind, where her thoughts wage war against one another in what she calls “thought spirals.” These internal battles, as well as their frequently dire aftermath, make it impossible not to see the challenge of living—nay, surviving—in the world when you have a mental illness.
If you suffer from mental illness in any shape or form, I recommend picking up a copy of Turtles. If you don’t suffer from mental illness in any shape or form, I also recommend picking up a copy of Turtles. It’s an incredible journey, start to finish. I laughed, I cried, I had to fight several urges to start reading Star Wars fanfiction. I learned so much—about star constellations, and tuatara, and clostridium difficile. But most importantly, Turtles helped me understand that, while mental illness doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, it can have a hopeful one.