Among the early raves for Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel, there’s this bit of gushy praise from Stephen King. “The word ‘masterpiece’ has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but ‘My Absolute Darling’ absolutely is one.”
In “Darling,” released Tuesday, Tallent has created an original female voice in the character of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who lives with her charismatic, autodidact, redneck father, Martin, in the backwoods of coastal Northern California.
The girl at the center of the story is memorable as a reminder of a black hole in contemporary literature: the stories of female survivors. And imperfect victims, at that.
‘My Absolute Darling’
Utah writer Gabriel Tallent launches his first novel.
When • Saturday, Sept. 9, 6 p.m.
Where • The King’s English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East, Salt Lake City; 801- 484-9100
Also • Reading at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 4
Where • The Printed Garden, 9445 S. Union Square, Suite A, Sandy; 385-695-2042
Tallent, 30, a Utah transplant, was raised in Mendocino like his fictional character. He’s the son of writer Elizabeth Tallent, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University; her most recent story collection is 2015’s “Mendocino Fire.” He’ll launch his book at The King’s English Bookshop on Saturday, Sept. 9, at a reading scheduled as part of the store’s 40th birthday. He also will read at Sandy’s The Printed Bookstore on Wednesday, Oct. 4.
“The way that culture has looked at violence to women has been mostly the spectacle of violence, not the lived experience, not taking seriously the survivor’s mind, and that is what this book is doing,” says Tallent‘s editor, Sarah McGrath, vice president and editor-in-chief of Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
She isn’t a character, she’s Turtle, McGrath says, a girl who is lonely and awkward and vulnerable, but also fierce and resilient and resourceful. “I think that’s why she’s going to go down in history as a literary heroine,” the editor says.
Anchored in landscape
“Cancel-your-plans good. Call-out-of-work good,” is the way one indie bookseller describes the power of the book’s storytelling.
“Lodged in my heart forever,” says Anne Holman, co-owner of The King’s English.
“It’s a book that is going to refuse to be forgotten,” says Aaron Cance, the owner of The Printed Garden. “Everybody who reads this book is going to want to talk about it.”
The novel is important for its thematic exploration of the cultural abuse of women, twinned with abuse of the environment. One of those strands is embedded in the book’s memorable title, which highlights one of Martin’s endearments for his daughter. He teaches her survival skills, beginning with shooting lessons at age 6.
“The book is very troubled by the idea of absolutes and trying to see people clearly,” Tallent says. “The title seems to be one of the things the book is most about, that relationship, which embodies its most tremendous love, which is also deeply troubled and problematic.”
Among early readers, editors and booksellers rave about the novel’s immersive nature and adventure-story pacing. More fraught are gritty scenes of abuse, which will make the story difficult for some readers — “nearly sadistic,” as one early publishing industry review claimed.
Violence aside, the story is leavened by the authority of its language, the heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of the bay and woods of the Northern California coastline, where Turtle is most at home. “Those passages are drawn from my incredible love of that place, and many, many days spent alone out in the backcountry powerfully affected by the places and things that I saw,” Tallent says.
A Utah transplant
Tallent and his wife, Harriet, a Utah native, met as students at Oregon’s Willamette University. After graduating in 2010, he took what he thought would be a year off from academia to focus on writing and spending more time outdoors.
Seven years later, his first novel is earning serious attention in the publishing world.
One of his jobs was cleaning toilets at Target. A more fruitful gig was leading youth on trail crews in the Pacific Northwest, where he heard conversations that sparked ideas for several characters in his novel.
On his move to Utah in 2012, Tallent says he stopped to buy mountain-climbing gear, and he explores Utah’s canyons as often as he can. As he worked on his novel, he waited tables at Alta Lodge and, more recently, at downtown’s Copper Onion — “the perfect writing job,” he says with a laugh.
“I don’t think I could have written this book if I were hinging it on some idea of being a professional novelist,” he says. “The book required too many risks. If I have to work in a restaurant for the rest of my life to write this way, I will.”
“Gun-toting, nettle-eating asskicker”
Tallent considers “Darling” a deeply feminist book and hopes the story’s realistic depictions of flawed characters might help readers in a “victim-blaming culture.” What‘s remarkable about the novel’s structure is how Turtle’s abusive training, in the end, offers her the chance to escape.
“I have known many young people with hard lives, and too often a veil of misdirection and censorship is pulled over it,” Tallent says. “Oftentimes in storytelling, victims are depicted as perfect, and many people who are victims don’t feel themselves to be perfect. I wanted to write as carefully as I could about Turtle’s thinking.”
The writer describes her facetiously as “a 14-year-old gun-toting, nettle-eating asskicker who is just trying to find her way home.”
More seriously, Tallent says, she’s a “young woman deeply divided within herself, searching for the tools and the clarity and the strategies of resistance to lead her out of a profound moral and spiritual darkness.” She has an abundance of resourcefulness and technical knowledge, but is hampered by her emotional bonds with her damaged father. She holds out hope that he will be better.
Knowing survivors, all of whom have different life stories, gave him “permission to write Turtle as her own character.”
Happy birthday, TKE
Tallent’s reading is part of a daylong celebration of The King’s English’s 40th birthday, Saturday, Sept. 9, at the shop. Other highlights:
11 a.m. • Storytime with Jean Reagan and her new picture book, How to Get Your Teacher Ready
Noon • Puppy Parade led by the Poky Little Puppy costume character
2 p.m. • Dan Hanna, illustrator of the bestselling Pout Pout Fish, will visit
3:30 p.m. • Toast to the bookshop and cake for everyone
4 p.m. • Creative Writing & Art Contest reading and awards