The Stories We Tell – A Review of John Green’s “Turtles All the Way Down”

“Whoever is authoring me,” says Aza Holmes as the narrator of her own downward spiral, “let me up out of this. Anything to be out of this.”

Of all the aspects of anxiety, the constant barrage of the noise of your own thoughts is the hardest to explain. Not because it defies articulation – but because it feels, oftentimes, like no words can truly explain the crushing weight of that cacophony. Its unyielding assault. Its brutal reality.

But in Turtles All the Way Down, John Green does just that. He doesn’t just put the image of OCD in front of us – he pulls us down into it, forcing us through the explicit narration of that neverending roar of anxiety to submerge ourselves fully.

What John captures is not just the statements themselves, but how abstractly they crop up. Aza finds herself pulled into a thought spiral simply by accidentally placing her eyes upon something otherwise mundane and irrelevant – which is one of the most infuriating aspects of anxiety. It doesn’t just crop up when your triggers appear – it can strike at any moment, linking previously unimportant things to the many ways in which you are going to suffer and die.

The reason that Turtles manages to articulate this is that it pulls absolutely no punches. When you are listening to Aza’s thoughts, you are listening to them uncensored. All of those thoughts that normally, you would never articulate to anyone – for fear that they would sound petty or small, even though you know they are powerfully violent.

“I hated my body. It disgusted me…I wanted out-out of my body, out of my thoughts, out-but I was stuck inside of this thing, just like all the bacteria colonizing me.”

This is what sets Turtles apart from other depictions of mental illness. By pulling you down into that experience it articulates that inescapable nature of the spiral tightening around you. Except you can put the book down and step away from it. Aza can’t. For her, and for the thousands of people with OCD – and the thousands more with other intrusive thoughts – it is everything. It is a box that is the very nature of the world.

People are already hailing Turtles as a seminal work of both young adult and mental health fiction, and this is why. I have never read anything like this book before, and I can only hope that I will again. It is brave in a way that I have never dared to be with my writing – a bar to which I, and all those who write about mental health, should aspire.

I read the entire book in a single day when it arrived, having waited to order it until I knew I had the time to do that – because the fact that I would do that was inevitable. Since I did that last week, I have barely stopped thinking about it. I truly believe that the path to making mental health accepted by the world is paved with understanding. With empathy.

And I think you would struggle to read Turtles All the Way Down and not come away with both of those things.

Thank you, John. I hope your book changes the rest of the world as much as it has changed mine.

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