I devoured this book in the course of 24 hours…and then promptly realized I kind of hated it.
Trigger warning: this book is about incest and extreme abuse, and all of it is described in graphic detail. Some of my issues with this graphic detail will be described in the review, so keep this in mind before reading ahead.
As mentioned, the main protagonist of this book, Turtle, is being physically and sexually abused by her loner father, who eschews all social norms because he 1. hates women 2. believes the world is about to end due to climate change 3. drinks too much 4. REALLY hates women. Those are his main character traits. People at Turtle’s school try to protect her, but her own brainwashing and hatred of/mistrust of women and her loyalty to her father cause her to reject help. When she meets some kids her own age, she starts to allow herself to accept help.
The basic plot is one that could be written well and with care and empathy. But instead the writing is awful in multiple ways. First, the author makes paints to paint Turtle as far behind in her schooling, yet her inner thoughts read like those of a pretentious college student, showing a far more complex understanding of vocabulary than she is actually said to have. One could argue that she thinks this way because her father speaks this way (his overblown “intellectual” rants are gratingly painful to read) but if so, the narrative around Turtle’s own intellect needs to change.
Secondly, almost no character in this book talks the way humans talk. The two boys she befriends sound like members of the Life & Death Brigade, making me instantly hate them. The only character whose dialogue rang true to me was Turtle’s teacher, Anna, but her actual actions throughout the book don’t ring true at all.
And finally and most importantly, there is the extremely exploitative and demeaning way the abuse is written throughout the novel. I’m sure the author would argue that he is trying to show Turtle’s ambivalence towards her own abuse: she’s been groomed, of course, to believe that she wants/deserves what her father is doing to her. But every time I read a description of the abuse, I had a hard time believing that the author actually believes that: they really seem to encourage the idea that this is right and enjoyable for both parties. On top of that, the author’s descriptions of Turtle’s body, especially her genitalia, is both degrading and far too erotic sounding. Perhaps Tallent is trying to ape Lolita, but Nabakov he is not. I really did not need to read multiple, detailed descriptions of the genitals of a young teenaged girl being horrifically abused by her father.
I really can’t imagine why this book was a critical darling. Perhaps, like almost all areas of criticism, the literary critic world needs more representation from women.