I read Gabriel Tallent’s book straight through in two days in August. Then I saw the blurb from Stephen King who offered an unsolicited endorsement. “I tore through an advance copy of the 400-plus-page novel in three days. It’s a first novel and he’s got everything working,” Mr. King said. “When I read it the first thing I thought was, I couldn’t do this, and I’ve been doing it for 40 years.”
While it is technically a first novel, it took eight years to write, and Gabriel’s mother is fiction writer Elizabeth Tallent. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Tallent began writing the book during his senior year of college at Willamette University in Salem, Ore. After graduating, he got a job as a waiter at a ski lodge. On days he wasn’t working, he’d write for 12 to 14 hours.
“Three years later, he had 800 pages of a sprawling novel about the Pacific Northwest and the strange characters who live there. He realized the seed of a more arresting story was there, scrapped the draft and wrote a much different novel, one that focused on Turtle’s experience and the physical, psychological and sexual abuse she endures, and her fight to overcome it. It took him five more years and another dozen drafts to finish the book.”
The New York Times says, “Turtle’s story unfolds on the coast of Northern California, in the lush, untamed forests, gulches and tide pools around Mendocino. She lives with her paranoid, survivalist father — a self-taught philosopher and gun nut who teaches her that the world is a treacherous place and humanity is doomed. At 6, she learns how to fire a bolt-action pistol. At 14, she’s become an expert sharpshooter and hunter who can navigate the forests in the dark, identify edible plants, make fire with a bow drill and shoot, skin and roast a rabbit over a fire of dried grass and twigs. She’s at home in the wilderness, but is failing at school and estranged from her peers and teachers. She’s alone except for Martin, a sadistic monster who would sooner kill her than lose control over her.”
The intensity of the book captured me and took me to a place I thought no one else could ever see. It showed that intensity is not the same as connection. Thrill is not the same as pleasure. Arousal is not necessarily good. Excitement is addictive. The paragraph on p.338 that was most compelling for me:
Turtle thinks, pull the trigger. She can imagine no other way forward. She thinks, pull the trigger. But if you do not pull the trigger, walk back up that creek and in through the door and take possession of your mind, because your inaction is killing you. She sits looking out at the beach, and she thinks, I want to survive this. She is surprised by the depth and clarity of her desire. Her throat tightens and she takes the gun out of her mouth and strings of saliva come with it and she brushes them away. She rises and stands looking our at the waves, overcome with the beauty. Her whole mind feels raw and receptive. She experiences a searing, wide-open thankfulness, an unmediated wonder at the world.
The beauty of the Mendocino area is woven into emotional intensity and family violence in an extraordinary way. I agree with the top writers who declared the book a “masterpiece” on par with “Catch-22” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”