Turtle (Julia) Alveston, 14, lives with Martin, her survivalist father, in a decrepit, isolated house on the coast of northern California. Martin has taught her how to shoot, make a fire, and forage for food. He also abuses her physically, psychologically, and sexually. Turtle’s life becomes more complicated when she meets two high school boys, Brett and Jacob. They show her glimpses into another world which highlights how distorted is her own.
The complex characterization of Turtle is the outstanding achievement of this novel. She is a tough and resourceful girl who is totally self-sufficient in the natural world. Because of her isolation and mistreatment by her father, however, she has a poor self-image; she is full of doubt and self-loathing. She thinks of herself as “useless” (11) and “bitch” (62) and “goddamn slut” (80) because those are the things her father calls her. In fact Martin always addresses her as “kibble,” thereby reducing her to dog food. She doesn’t try at school because she is convinced she will fail. Her daily life is wracked with anxiety and guilt. Like many abuse victims, she blames herself: “She thinks, maybe it was you all along. Maybe there is something in you. Something rotten. You asked for it, or you wanted it. Of course you did. You brought him into this when you were just a child” (292). And like her nickname suggests, she is focused on staying safe within her shell so she avoids contact with others.
When she is forced to interact with other women, she echoes Martin’s misogynistic comments; for example, she calls a teacher, one who is trying to help her, a “sideways bitch” (127) and “fucking whore” (26) and “cunt” (27). Turtle realizes that she shares some of Martin’s traits: after teasing and taunting a classmate, “Turtle turns and walks away, and she thinks, that’s not me, that’s not who I am, that is Martin, that is something Martin does – his knack for finding the thing you hate about yourself and giving it a name. She thinks, Christ, that was so much more like Martin, derisive, condescending, than it was like me. . . . She thinks, this is the part of him I hate most, the part that I revile, and I reached for it and it came easy” (143-144). What differentiates her from her father is her ability to feel compassion for others.
Turtle’s conflict throughout is her feelings for her father. She both loves and hates him. She loves her father and wants to protect him: “She can’t bear that anyone else should see something he’s done wrong” (159). She makes excuses for him; when a teacher suspects Turtle is being abused, Turtle reminds the teacher that “’He’s still hurt [from my mother’s death]. He hurts pretty badly’” (131). She could run away but thinks, “I’m all Martin has, and I can’t leave him alone with that. I can’t” (305). But though she can admit, “I love him, I love him so goddamn much,” she will also admit, almost in the same breath, “I hate him for something, something he does, he goes too far, and I hate him, but I am unsure in my hatred; guilty and self-doubting and hating myself almost too much to hold it against him” (80).
Martin is memorable in his repulsive villainy. He is very intelligent but uses his intelligence to manipulate others. He is also unpredictable in his behaviour; one minute he is calm and loving and the next, his volatile temper explodes in violence. He claims to love his daughter but it is a warped, possessive love; there is one horrific episode where he keeps repeating to Turtle, “’You are mine . . . Mine . . . You are mine . . . you little bitch, you are mine’” (140 – 141).
Because Turtle is so connected to the natural world, there are many detailed descriptions: “She and Jacob find iridescent-green centipedes, horned sea lemons with lacy gills unfurled, porcelain incrustations of spiral tube worms. They shift more cobbles. Sometimes, the water beneath will be still, the snails clattering across the mother-of-pearl carpets, the hermit crabs lifting their blue-pink clutch of limbs back into their blue-pink turban shells, the sullen-looking clingfish suckered against the stone, stone-colored themselves” (221). Sometimes nature is used to emphasize Turtle’s situation: her soul is like “a stalk of pig mint growing in the dark foundation, slithering toward a keyhole of light between the floorboards, greedy and sun-starved” (44).
The book is not flawless. The prose tends to be ornate; at times it seems the author is trying too hard to be poetic. Perhaps it is intended to be a reprieve from the sometimes breathtaking brutality being portrayed. The dialogue attributed to Brett and Jacob is unrealistically precocious. Sixteen-year-old boys are unlikely to be familiar with Finnegans Wake, The Odyssey, The Brothers Karamazov and To the Lighthouse (60) or be so verbally adept: “’this is the chain-saw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen Buddhist, one-and-future queen of postapocalyptic America’” (208).
There are some problematic scenes as well. The many descriptions of guns become tedious. Perhaps it’s my dislike of guns that hates passages describing her shooting: “She knows the sight is level when the edge appears as thin as a razor – if the gun tips up, she gets a telltale sheen off the sight’s top surface. . . She eases the play out of the 4.4-pound trigger, inhales, exhales to the natural slackening of her breath, and rolls on those 4.4 pounds” (5). And since I know nothing about guns, descriptions of Turtle’s constant maintenance of her weapons are meaningless to me: “Turtle sits cross-legged with the AR-10 broken open before her and the bolt carrier gutted from the receiver, shining red in the firelight, stripped of bolt and cam and firing pin. She’s poured the carbon solvent into a lowball glass” (135). There are also some action scenes that I found over-the-top. The climax seems to be drawn from an action film.
This book will not appeal to everyone. It is dark and disturbing and graphic. I found it an intense and exhausting read, but one I will not soon forget.