If you spend any time in the literary corners of Twitter you will have heard of Gabriel Tallent’s debut already. Lots of readers fervently singing its praises at every turn. I knew from the blurb that it would be a tough read but had no conception of just how gut-wrenchingly nerve-wracking. I nearly gave it up but Tallent’s writing is so compelling that I couldn’t leave it alone. It’s the story of fourteen-year-old Turtle who lives with her survivalist father in Northern California.
Turtle’s mother died when she was a toddler. She downs a couple of raw eggs every morning, tosses her father a beer and discourages him from walking her to the school bus. Martin is careful to abide by enough of society’s rules to avoid social services removing Turtle from him. She’s well-versed in survival skills, has her own gun – regularly stripped down and cleaned ready to fire – but she has no school friends and refuses to work at her studies. Her grandfather, Daniel, lives close by and tries to keep an eye on her, upbraiding Martin for the way he’s bringing the girl up, only to be met with abuse from the son who loathes him. Martin has systematically broken Turtle down and reformed her. She watches him carefully, wary of provoking him. She hates herself and everyone else, her head full of anger. Two events change the course of this twisted relationship: Daniel’s death which precipitates Martin’s abandonment of Turtle for several months, and her acquaintance with two boys, one of whom falls in love with her and takes her home. For a few short months, Turtle comes close to a normal family life. When Martin returns, bringing a ten-year-old girl with him, Turtle understands that she will soon be faced with a momentous choice.
Tallent tells Turtle’s story from her own perspective, wisely choosing a third person narrative rather than the first person the intensity of which would have been too much to bear. Martin’s psychopathic behaviour and stream of misogynistic abuse alternating with excessive professions of love have made Turtle mistrustful and vigilant yet incapable of withholding love from the only person apart from her grandfather who has shown her affection, no matter how perverse. Martin is a chillingly monstrous character yet carefully crafted to avoid the cartoon villain. Turtle is expertly drawn: a silent observer at school, constantly trying to decipher the codes of social behaviour. Tallent stretches his story taut with a series of graphic scenes which had me shrinking away yet unable to stop reading. When Turtle contemplates killing Martin, you can only cheer her on. Amongst the drama of the novel’s storyline are some beautiful descriptions of the natural world but it’s Turtle that keeps your attention. This is real heart in mouth stuff, unsparing of its readers. It ends with a much-needed possibility of hope.