This is one of those books that the second it came out, everyone was reading. So when I saw it in a used bookstore while visiting my brother out in Colorado last December, I couldn’t say no (even though I only had a carry on and there probably was not any room left to smoosh it into…such is the life of a book nerd.) But then the Holidays hit and things got crazy and all of a sudden it was the middle of February and I still hadn’t gotten to it. So I buckled down and picked it up. And then it took me like 3 weeks to read this, which is crazy slow reading for me, because it was so intense that I really needed breaks. But really, absolutely worth the hype.
“The time will come when your soul must be absolute with your conviction, and whatever your spread, and howsoever fast you are, you will only succeed if you fight like a fucking angel, fallen to fucking earth, with a heart absolute and full of conviction, without hesitation, doubt, or fear, no part of yourself divided against the other; in the end, that’s what life will ask of you.”
This is Turtle’s story. Turtle is ferocious, tough, half-feral. And Turtle is a survivor. At fourteen, she lives alone with her father in Northern CA, spending her time wandering the remote areas and wilderness around their home. She has been isolated, with only her father and grandfather as companions, since the death of her mother before she can remember. Her father cuts an intimidating and inspiring figure: physically impressive and a sort of apostate survivalist philosopher who scorns society and its disregard for the power and importance of nature. But he is something else too; he is unstable, unpredictable. At times, his standing forth on the need for personal strength and survival skills turns violent, very violent, and Turtle is the only one there with him… One day, while out wandering the woods, Turtle meets a couple local boys, around her age, and strikes up the first relationship outside her paternal figures that she’s ever had. She has a chance to see how other people live, alternative views of society and family, and starts to realize that perhaps what see has grown up with is not the norm, is not sustainable. And she begins to imagine, maybe hope for, something different. She feels trapped, but “knows” that only she can save herself; she cannot tell, cannot rely on, anyone else. The breaking point comes when, one day, it is not only her own well-being and life that is threatened and Turtle realizes that saving everyone is up to her, and her alone.
This story is harsh, heartbreaking, stunning, devastating. It’s gutting, in both a literal and figurative sense. Truly, I felt exhausted when I turned the last page and put it down. It’s almost impossible to process the horror – some parts are nigh on impossible to read (hence, all the breaks I took), with an astonishing amount of layered emotional, mental and physical traumas. And while that aspect of the story is truly haunting, this novel is also so much more than that. This is the story of Turtle’s trauma, yes. But as I said at the beginning, this is Turtle’s story. So much happens to her in these years of her life that she has no control over, has nothing to compare to, struggles to process. And that is a part of her. But it is not all she is. And that, I think, is what garnered Tallent all the praise for this masterpiece. He is able to tell a story of abuse, is able to show it (in great detail) so that the reader can know exactly what Turtle’s life is…there is no denying it. But at the same time, she is her own person, her own mind, her own decisions. She explores the nature that she loves, she finds time to practice what matters to her, she grows and develops independent of her stifling home life, and in the end she is beginning to create a life for herself that she wants, where the decisions are all hers. She knows it will be a long road, but she has the time to make it what she wants. Tallent explores the terror and pain of abuse of women, and the unforgettable, lifelong consequences of that, without letting that “plot device” overtake the truth of who that woman really is, her actual character. It’s expertly written and extraordinarily impressive.
*Caveat: I have not personally experienced anything like what Turtle went through, so please take my opinion with that grain of salt. With all the focus recently of own voices in literature, I think it’s absolutely worth pointing out that this is not. And while I believe, felt in the writing, that this was written with respect for women, in condemnation of abuse, and to bring focus to an crucial issue and the actual people behind it, I have limits in my right to say how accurate and truthful it is to that aim.
Regarding the writing itself – it was gorgeous. Tallent’s way with words is precise when necessary and flowery where possible. The descriptions of nature that are prominent throughout the novel, from the woods to the waterfront, from plant to bugs to animals, were lush and enchanting. His love for nature pops out at you from every page. Also, the dialogue is written with amazing finesse. From the pontificating of Turtle’s father to the short, staccato interactions that Turtle has with everyone, to the fantastical and exaggerative passages of Jacob and Brett, it is all so unique and expressive. And the overall tone is the exact heavy, creepy feeling that this book deserves. From page one, things feel tense, even before you know what’s going on. The dark and ominous cloud that hangs over everything is always there and every time it breaks a little, no matter how bad it is, you always feel there is worse to come. Everything is the perfect combination of bleak and lyrical.
This is such an incredibly intense reading experience, reminding me of some of my favorites, like All the Ugly and Wonderful Things or A Little Life. It’s an undertaking, and you’ll need a nice chick lit or paranormal romance to clear the air with afterwards (or, at least, that’s what I’m planning to read next), but I highly recommend this book.