Books

Gabriel Tallent’s debut is brutal, beautiful and unforgettable

Gabriel Tallent will visit Wichita Friday for an author talk and signing of his debut novel, “My Absolute Darling.”
Gabriel Tallent will visit Wichita Friday for an author talk and signing of his debut novel, “My Absolute Darling.” Courtesy photo

At least one renowned writer wasn’t shy about his feelings for Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel.

“The word ‘masterpiece’ has been cheapened by too many blurbs,” goes the blurb from Stephen King. “But ‘My Absolute Darling’ absolutely is one.”

Tallent, who will visit Watermark Books in Wichita on Friday, says he wasn’t expecting that kind of response.

But the King of Horror isn’t the only one raving about “My Absolute Darling,” a fierce, gripping, expertly crafted novel that is this month’s No. 1 Indie Next pick of independent booksellers and one of the year’s most talked-about books.

The novel tells the story of 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, who lives in an overgrown, rat-infested house in northern California with her father, Martin, who sexually abuses her. Turtle eats raw eggs for breakfast, treks through woods and handles guns like an experienced sharpshooter, all while struggling to fit in at school and decipher where her life might go.

The story, much like Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” is often painful to read. Was it difficult to write?

“I knew people with hard upbringings, and it felt important to me to be honest about Turtle’s experience and not to abridge it,” Tallent said.

He’s chatting by phone from his native California, where he recently launched a nationwide book tour.

“Turtle’s thinking and her experience is important to me to render with a kind of psychological reality,” he said. “While I think drawing a veil over that is the appropriate thing to do in some narrative contexts, it didn’t seem the right thing to do here.”

What results is a story both harrowing and inspirational. And that’s the point, the author says.

“When we cast a light on these dark moments we help some people feel less alone, even while we discomfort others,” he said. “That seemed a risk I was willing to take.

When we cast a light on these dark moments we help some people feel less alone, even while we discomfort others. … I don’t think that the object of fiction is to be comfortable for everybody.

Gabriel Tallent, author of “My Absolute Darling”

“I don’t think that the object of fiction is to be comfortable for everybody.”

Tallent, who now lives in Salt Lake City, was raised in Mendocino, Calif., by two mothers – writer Elizabeth Tallent and her wife, Gloria Rogers. Albion Ridge, his childhood home, “attracted back-to-the-land lesbians from across the nation,” he says.

During his childhood the area’s hippie communes were in their latter days.

“So there was very much a sense of strong idealism that had been tempered by some realities of adult life,” Tallent said. “That dialectic is very much a part of my thinking about the world.”

Like his novel’s protagonist, Tallent wandered the northern California wilderness, a fact that plays out in his detailed and atmospheric writing. But his was a free-range childhood with qualifications.

“It normally started with a negotiation with my parents and a pretty tight itinerary,” he said.

“I was an excellent map and compass navigator, so … I would come to my parents with a map and a sort of day-by-day itinerary of where I wanted to go, and we would carefully assess it.”

When it comes to early influences, he says, his mother Elizabeth’s writing wasn’t nearly as powerful as her reading.

“We spent a lot of time sort of hunkered down in the living room, drinking tea and reading ‘Nicholas Nickleby,’” Tallent said.

“There were always books around the house, and so it’s only a matter of time before one of them catches your eye and you start reading. … We spent a lot of time talking about books, and I think in that talking, just in the way that she thinks about books, I absorbed a great deal.”

His appearance in Wichita on Friday will mark Tallent’s first visit to Kansas. He likes spending time in independent bookstores, which he called “bastions of sanity and free thinking in trying times.”

Visiting with readers, he strives “to be genuine and just to represent this book the way that I see it,” he said. “As a narrative of a young woman fighting for her own soul.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias

Gabriel Tallent in Wichita

Author Gabriel Tallent will read from and sign copies of his debut novel, “My Absolute Darling.”

When: 6 p.m. Sept. 22

Where: Watermark Books & Cafe, 4701 E. Douglas

How much: Free.

More information: Call Watermark at 316-682-1181 or visit http://www.watermarkbooks.com/event/gabriel-tallent.

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