Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Atomic Blonde

In Atomic Blonde (2017; dir. David Leitch) deception, secrets, and lies are the foundation of this espionage and action thriller set in Berlin in the late 1980s at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The rule here is that no one should be trusted, everyone is a façade in some way, every character is a target, no one tells the truth, and that governments (Britain, France, Germany, the Soviets, and the USA) are complicit in a corrupt global mess.  We’ve seen this in numerous espionage films—The Spy Who Came in from the Cold comes to mind, as does Syriana and others. So there’s no moral surprise and shock: this world weariness is not new.  But instead of wallowing where other films have wallowed, The Atomic Blonde gives us Charlize Theron as the agent for the British Intelligence Agency.  This film seemed to advertise itself as a super hero film, but although Lorraine has no super powers she can fight and wrestle and shoot extraordinarily well.  She gives the film its focus.  She strains our credulity, but that doesn’t matter. She’s constantly beaten up and bruised and bloodied, but she always leaves everyone she faces dead or maimed. She always manages to get up and persevere.  She also develops a relationship with a French agent, Delphine Lasalle, played by Sophia Boutella, so she may be the first lesbian action hero in a major film.  However, as soon as Lorraine and Delphine get together, it’s clear the latter is doomed.

There must be a history to Lorraine’s character, but the film doesn’t show it.  By revealing virtually nothing about her past, or what has formed her character, the film stirs our curiosity.  A sequel is certain. 

This film a has a modish-punk style, punctuated with striking visuals, mobs of protesting Berliners, and period music, some of it German and some not.  One action sequence takes place in a theater that is showing Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), and a large banner with the film’s name hangs in the background. (Since I haven’t seen Stalker, I can’t tell whether this is significant). Endless action scenes make The Atomic Blonde difficult to ignore. So does Theron in her role.  The Atomic Blonde seems infected by, or trying to define, a moral and spiritual anomie that marked the end of the twentieth century and that seems even more current today.

How many high-fashion dresses and spiked heels can an espionage agent fit in a single bag?

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017; dir. Luc Besson) is a visual beauty but empty beneath.  Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) had novelty and frenetic movement and humor, but not Valerian. In some ways, Valerian seems almost to replay the earlier film’s formula.  There’s even a scene involving a transforming alien who sings beautifully (voiced by Rihanna) who ends up dying: this echoes a similar scene with a beautiful blue opera singing alien in The Fifth Element. There was more of a plot in the earlier film, but both films seem to embrace a video game narrative strategy, with a cascading set of characters and obstacles and twists and turns and battles and what should be rising tension that leads to the finale.  While The Fifth Element held one’s interest, both because something seemed to be happening and because of such actors as Bruce Willis, Mila Jovovich, Gary Oldman, Chris Tucker, and others, and also because of a riotous sense of chaos and motion, Valerian is monotonous.  There is supposed to be chemistry, sexual tension, between the two main characters, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne), agents for the galactic government, but it’s not there.  Delevingne is the most forceful of the two.  She is certainly a physical presence, but overall she and DeHaan seem unaware of each other. The only picture by Besson that worked for me, besides The Fifth Element, was La Femme Nikita (1990) and Arthur and the Invisibles (2006).  The much-lauded Lucy (2014) had many of the same weaknesses as Valerian, and a ludicrous plot. Besson has shown at times a rich visual imagination, but in Valerian it almost begins to seem stale.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Remembering Judith Cofer

Below is a talk I gave about Judith Ortiz Cofer as one of a number of presenters on November 4, 2017,  in a special SAMLA session devoted to her life and work, organized by Rafael Ocasio of Agnes Scott College and Lorraine Lopez of Vanderbilt University.  It expands on a few paragraphs from a statement I read at her memorial service and that was later published along with other tributes in the Fall 2017 South Atlantic Review.
Remembering Judith Cofer
I’m glad to be able to share today my memories and impressions of Judith Ortiz Cofer.  She was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2010.  For those of you who might not know, the Hall of Fame is sponsored by the University of Georgia Libraries. Each year it honors several notable writers from the state, living and dead. Shortly after her induction, I interviewed Judith for the HOF.  That interview is posted on the GWHOF web site, along with other author interviews.  Recently I took the opportunity to watch the interview again. It was wonderful to see her face and hear her vibrant, engaging voice again. I didn’t realize how much I missed her intelligence and humanity.  We talked in that session about a number of topics, one of them being her thoughts about her identity as a Georgia writer. She told me that categories often gave her “pause.”  She said, “Sometimes I will start my reading by asking for a short podium because I am a short Puerto Rican American Georgian Southern writer and I always remind them that they left this category off the poster.”[1]  Elsewhere she has made clear that she also thinks of herself as a woman writer.
Despite the other recognitions she received during her career, induction into the Hall of Fame seemed to mean a great deal to Judith.  She said at the time, “It is a great honor to be inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. I have lived, taught, and written in Georgia longer than anywhere else, and being included among Georgia writers is a confirmation that I am now home.”[2]  Recognition is something Judith wanted in Georgia.  She spent most of her adult life in the state.  She did most of her writing here.  She taught at the University of Georgia for twenty-five years, and she often visited Georgia colleges and schools. Yet, though she was comfortable with being labeled a Puerto Rican or Latina or Georgia writer, she felt, I think, that such categories did not encompass the totality of who she was.
I first knew Judith as an author and poet whose work I admired and, later, as a member of the University of Georgia English department. I knew her as a friend for more than thirty years. We exchanged e-mails, chatted on campus, and met in downtown Athens for occasional lunches. Our favorite meeting place was an Italian restaurant.  As you enter, you see a line of booths on the right.  We’d sit and talk in one of those booths. We enjoyed one another’s company and had a natural rapport.  We were about the same age and shared similar points of views. We discussed mutual interests—books we’d read, films we’d seen, our families. We talked indiscreetly of our colleagues.  Judith talked of her students, in whom she took great satisfaction. She spoke often of her husband John and her daughter Tanya, of whom she was very proud, and of her grandson Eli and son-in-law Dory. She would also talk about her works in progress: poems and novels she was working on, books she was writing. Sometimes she asked me to read and react to what she was working on, and though I would dutifully offer my thoughts, she didn’t really need them. She had a firm sense of where she wanted to go. I read an early draft of her first novel In the Line of the Sun (1989), as well as of her final book, about her mother’s death, The Cruel Country (2015). The Line of the Sun draft began in a promising way but I also thought it would benefit from some revision. I told her what I thought. Frankly, I had to be careful.  I am fairly certain she did not enjoy having her work criticized. But I felt I should be honest with her.  She didn’t immediately acknowledge my comments, though later she thanked me, and the published novel was very fine. I always felt honored that she shared her works-in-progress and that she wanted my opinion.
It should be no surprise that Judith was extremely well read, and over the years of our friendship I learned that she and I read many of the same writers as we were growing up and listened to much of the same music.  In her collection of stories and poems The Year of Our Revolution she talks about the music she listened to.  In the Hall of Fame interview, she mentions Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, who were important role models for her as she was starting out.  In the example of O’Connor in particular she said that she had found a way of writing about people, the kind of people she might on occasions meet in a place like Georgia.  She also mentions in that interview Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Philip Levine, Isaac Asimov, Lillian Hellman, Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, Homer, Mark Strand, Galway Kinnell, W. J. Cash, and others. This is not Judith dropping literary names.  This is Judith talking about writers whom she read, who helped shape her own work, whose example she emulated, who were part of her creative education.
Judith loved writing. She worked hard at it. She was extremely self-disciplined. For most of her adult life she rose at 5:00 in the morning to write for two hours before seeing her family off to school and work. If she couldn’t write, she would read. In the interview she said that
with my writing I try to think of it as not as work that is going to bring immediate awards or monetary gain or whatever.  It is just like the offices of a religious life.  You practice it and eventually it is going to bring other rewards.  So basically, that is my routine.  As I get up in the morning I drink an entire pot of coffee, in the dark, and then head for my desk.  . . . I wrote my novel that way, two pages a day, good or bad, for four-and-a-half years.  That’s how The Line of the Sun was written and that’s how everything I’ve written gets written.
These two hours were crucial to her—during the years as a young parent, tending to her daughter Tanya, to her time as an increasingly recognized writer and teacher of creative writing: she kept those two hours for her writing self. As hungry as she was for time to write, I should add that she did not fail to prepare for her classes or to serve her department and University: she gave her all in these areas. She wanted to be a good teacher and citizen of the University. She served on many departmental and University committees. She never failed to visit my classes when I invited her to talk about her work. She did the same for many other colleagues. She was generous with her students—no question was too simple or dim. Her sense of herself as a citizen of a national and international writing community was evident in how often she traveled to read and discuss her work at schools and universities across the country. But by keeping those two hours for herself, she nurtured and sustained her passion to write. Above all else, her desire to write, to be published, to be recognized, drove her in her work. Her work ethic, her commitment to writing, was a daunting model.
At heart, and I do not use this word with any disparagement, Judith was an autobiographical writer.  She saw her life as one of struggle to overcome obstacles in her quest to find a voice, to be a writer.  She moved as a child with her family from Puerto Rico to Patterson, NJ, and as a teenager to the rural country outside Augusta, and finally to the Univ of Georgia.  There were linguistic obstacles—writing in a language she was not born to.  Her parents, whom she loved, posed their own challenges: when Judith was grown her mother returned to the Island and Judith saw her once or twice a year.  Her importance to Judith is obvious in poems she wrote, in her essays, and in her final painful book, The Cruel Country (2015). Her father grew increasingly troubled in her adult life, and his memory haunted her in certain ways. And when she finally made it on to the faculty in English at UGA, she had to struggle again: as the only woman in the creative writing faculty, as a person some might have dismissed as a diversity hire. I will say that once she joined the faculty, her rise was fast, if not meteoric, and in the last years of her career the University and the State recognized her for her achievements. She received the Regents Professorship, the highest award the University can bestow on a faculty member, and University's 2014 Southeastern Conference Faculty Achievement Award.  She received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities in 2010. 
Judith wanted people to appreciate that she was not just some natural-born genius but instead a woman who had to work hard for what she achieved. The development of the self, of a personal and public identity, was her subject.  She often wrote about her family, and yes, family was important to her. But she was not the sort of autobiographical writer who writes only of herself—she made her own experience a representation of human experience in general, of what she described in her HOF interview, as a “woman’s struggle to become a writer.” She uses the material of her own life to be able to understand and portray people and situations other than her own.
Among the many poems I admire by Judith, I count such titles as “Before the Storm” and “First Job: The Southern Sweets Candy Shop and Bakery.”  She wrote the Southern Sweets poem with the conscious intent of making it her first poem about the American South, about Georgia, though I think there may have been other such poems before this one. My favorite of her poetry collections is A Love Story Beginning in Spanish, which is, among other things, a volume about her search for a voice, for a poetic language.  In that volume, one finds her poem “To Understand El Azul,” which for me stands among her best work.  It’s a poem about language and heritage, about the search for a common voice.  It’s an intensely visionary poem, positive, uplifting, and optimistic: these are adjectives I associate with Judith and her work.
Judith loved writing. She worked hard at it. She saw writing as her higher calling, and she answered it with every particle of her being. She was pleased that others enjoyed and admired her work. She did not mean her retirement from the University to be the end of her creative life.  She looked forward to many years of writing and of time with her family. It is such a sadness that she did not have these. Judith had many friends. I am pleased to have been one of them.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Origins, by Dan Brown

In Origins (2017), Dan Brown demonstrate the success of his formula. Religious zealots, exotic locales, great artworks and architecture, an attractive and intelligent woman, assassins, and, most of all, conspiracies. Once again, he exercises his ability to write persuasively and intelligently about scientific matters and great works of art.  Though the surface might be persuasive, the substance beneath is not. Over his six or so novels, he has improved and refined his formula, so that he is able to build tension and develop his narrative at a frantic pace, even when, upon careful study, you notice that nothing much is happening.  The build-up to an assassination that lies at the center of the novel takes forever to unfold, and though the tension does build it is counterbalanced by tedium.

The premise of this novel is that a famous and provocative scientist who loves public attention and has invented many world-changing devices (read in place of his name Elon Musk, Steve Jobs) is about to announce a discovery that will change how people think about the human race and that will answer once and for all the questions of where did we come from and where are we headed.  He is also certain that his revelation will upend and ultimately bring down world religions.  Not surprisingly, religious leaders want to stop him.  Not surprisingly, someone starts killing those leaders.  Not surprisingly, there are false leads, unexpected revelations, clues, secret codes, passwords, monks, priests, rabbis, imams, and youngsters on four-wheeled vehicles.

Everything is at stake here: the future of humankind, identity, God, religion, artificial intelligence, technology, authoritarian governments, homosexuality, and the Spanish monarchy.  There were moments and points of interest.  But after the tension ceased to build, tedium set in.

Most of all, the discovery itself is a letdown.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Bottle Rocket

Bottle Rocket (1996) was the first film directed by Wes Anderson. He co-wrote the screenplay with Owen Wilson, who plays one of the main characters, Dignan. Not as ornate and baroque as Anderson's later films, this one is nonetheless characteristically a Wes Anderson film. It's wacky, chaotic, random, and whimsical. The two main characters, Dignan and Anthony (Luke Wilson), both of whom have just been released from a mental hospital, are neurotically paranoid and dysfunctional. They aspire to be robbers. The Wilson brothers, especially Chris Wilson, are so flaky and spaced that they enhance the random quality of what happens. Dignan plans out their heists in obsessive detail, with maps and secret codes and events timed to the second. Their first robbery is at a bookstore. 

Although there was a screenplay, the film feels as if it were entirely improvised. I can't really say that there's a plot: this is a film about crazy characters and cracked aspirations. In the climactic scene, with the assistance of accomplices (including an Indian safecracker who seems on the verge of senility) Dignan and Anthony try to rob a warehouse. Carefully planned though this heist might be, it devolves into an anarchistic and hilarious mess. Everything goes wrong.

At times the film seems to wander off course, but such wanderings are characteristic of Wes Anderson's films. They're not wanderings at all. An example occurs at a motel where Dignan and Anthony have holed up after their bookstore robbery. Anthony falls passionately in love with a young housekeeper. He follows her from one room to the other, helps her clean and make the beds. They swim together and finally make love in one of the rooms. She's from Paraguay, he doesn't speak Spanish, so they can’t communicate. You never know what's going to happen next. Another bit of randomness is the appearance of James Caan as Mr. Henry, who heads up a small-time crime ring masquerading as a landscape service. Caan fits right in.

Anderson uses in Bottle Rocket a number of actors who appear in his later films, especially the Wilson brothers. One example is Kumar Pallana, the safecracker: he played secondary characters in Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007).

Friday, September 29, 2017

It

Over the years, I have seen a number of adaptations of Stephen King novels and stories. It (dir. Andy Muschietti, 2017) is one of the best. I think Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining stands in front of all other adaptations, despite the fact that King himself dislikes it. It's a Kubrick film. It's artful on its own terms, and a reflection of that fact is that Kubrick himself felt free to make significant changes to the plots and the characters in the novel. Even so, he evoked, especially in the film’s first half, the same intense dread that one felt in reading parts of the novel.

It is definitely a horror film. There are many frightful moments. There are several intense scenes of violence, one in particular at the beginning. But the moments of horror are counterbalanced by other elements, the most important of them being the main characters: six boys and a girl on the verge of adolescence. They become wary partners, and then friends, as they gradually learn about and experience the horror at the core of the history of their town Derry, Maine, and of the men, women, and children who have disappeared or been killed in unusual numbers since its beginning. The barely hints at Derry’s history.

The clown Pennywise (“the Dancing Clown”) is the cause of everything wrong in the town. He appears to each child in a form most likely to disturb each his or her psychological fears. The children are on the verge of adolescence. Hormones are beginning to flow. The monstrous clown is a real evil. But he is also a symbol: of the future, of adolescence, of puberty, adult sexuality, all the challenges and disappointments and horrors that lie ahead, or that might lie ahead, in adulthood. He is the unknown, the darkness and uncertainty of the future.

It is also about friendship. One of the main characters, Bill, lost his little brother to Pennywise the summer before the main action of the film. He is still grieving that loss, for which he feels some guilt. For him the clown is a personal matter. He wants to find and destroy it. And he still has hopes that his brother might be alive somewhere. His search for the clown is a way of resolving his grief over his missing brother. The other members of the group support him. Each of the group’s members has encountered the clown, in different forms. They realize they can't ignore him.

As is the case in many films that feature young adolescents as main characters, these boys and the girl have a knack for not asking for adult assistance. There's a reason: the girl, Beverly, is being molested by her father. One of the boys, Eddie, has an overbearing and controlling mother. Bill has a strained relationship with his father. There's a long history in the town of evil and calamitous happenings that the adults have either ignored or never figured out. The children decide it's their responsibility to take action. This does challenge one's credibility. Most children are not as courageous and ingenious as these.  But that's okay. This is an adventure as well as a horror film. You have to suspend your disbelief. It reminded me of The Goonies, directed by Richard Donner (1986), and Stand by Me (dir. Rob Reiner, 1985), based on a Stephen King story.

Friendship, confronting uncertainty and mystery, and loyalty are at the center of this film. It's highly entertaining, suspenseful and sometimes frightening. But I found it a moving experience. That's unusual in a horror film.

The final scene, where the group swears a blood oath to one another, ensures a sequel, as does the fact that much of the novel is not covered at all.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Cool Hand Luke (novel), by Don Pearce

Cool Hand Luke (1965), by Don Pearce, was the basis of the film of the same name released in 1967. Pearce co-wrote the screenplay. The essential events of the film are also in the novel, with some minor reordering. Surprising to me, the novel held up well. The main difference between the novel and the film was a matter of tone. The novel seemed to me a kind of folk novel. An unnamed narrator tells the story of Cool Hand Luke, beginning at a table in front of the church where Luke was murdered by one of the prison wardens sometime before. Many of the same characters or character types are present in the novel: Dragline, the man with no eyes, and others. There is no unnamed narrator in the film, of course. The differences between the novel and the film are matters of nuance. This is especially true in the character of Cool Hand Luke himself, who has an actual name. He gains his prison moniker Cool Hand Luke as the result of the same card game that we see in the movie: he wins the game by pretending to have a better hand than he actually has. He plays the move with such coolness that his fellow prisoner Dragline gives him his name: Cool Hand Luke.

We learn more in the novel about Cool Hand Luke's background than we do in the film. He's the victim of battle fatigue, posttraumatic stress syndrome. Though he fought bravely in the war, he gradually suffers the effects of it. His battle with authority seems to have predated his military experience. The war merely exacerbated that tendency. We also learn that in Cool Hand Luke's background was a love affair with a woman that for whatever reason has ended. It's implied he and the woman had a child.

In the novel, when Luke’s mother comes to visit him at the prison camp, she has no evident illness. In the film, Luke knows that she is dying and that her visit will be his last chance to see her. She is not ill in the novel. The novel thus suggests that three events in Luke's past have contributed to his state of mind: his wartime experience, the failed love affair, and his mother's death.

Both the novel and the film make Cool Hand Luke out to a redemptive character who inspires and gives hope to his fellow prison mates. Images of crucifixion and other religious associations appear in both. But in the novel one of the main aspects of Luke's influence on the prisoners is his music. He's an excellent guitar player and a singer and throughout much of the novel he sings songs that linger in the minds of his fellow prison mates. When he learns of his mother's death, he goes to his bunk bed and sings a hymn to himself. In the film the song he sings is not a hymn but is instead the well-known sacrilegious tune "Plastic Jesus." The film therefore makes Cool Hand Luke out to be a more irreligious person than the novel does. In the novel, Luke is clearly struggling with his faith and may have even lost it. This causes Dragline much distress. But in the novel, Luke is not so glib about disbelief. Even though in the film we finally realize that Luke has been struggling with his belief or disbelief in God, in the novel this struggle is made clearer. In fact, Luke seems more angry with God for abandoning him than disbelieving.

Apart from the film, the novel stands on its own. It's well-written, it's interesting, and the characters are well drawn. Like the film, it's a story of the individual struggling against anonymous institutional authority. As with the film, the novel is an allegory of the individual versus society and authority.

The novel struck me as a folk novel. I don't even really know what the definition of a folk novel is. In certain ways, its tone is similar to that of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939), and of Tom Kromer’s wonderful and depressing depression novel Waiting for Nothing (1935). But even though the characters in the novel are well drawn and vivid, it's tempting to see them as generic types: each of them has a prison name, not her real name. They seem to stand for something greater than themselves. They have no lives outside the prison, they are required to follow prison rules to the letter, they must get permission for every move they make, they even must get permission to get out of bed and go to the bathroom. Any infraction of the rules, any questionable glance at one of the guards, results in their being locked into solitary confinement for one day or more. After his second escape, Luke is treated brutally. They are all victims of indifferent Power, of anonymous authority, of the unsympathetic State.

In the film, we quickly realize that Luke is a man with an attitude. There is no question after the opening scenes that he's going to have issues with the prison authorities, that he's going to rebel against the rules and regulations of the prison camp, and that this is going to be what the film is about. Luke is a rebel, a prankster. In this way, he occupies a tradition in southern culture and letters of the fool killer who rebels against and shows up those individuals who, among other things, take advantage of and brutalize the people over whom they have power. The novel builds Cool Hand Luke into this same kind of fool killer character, but the process is slower, more drawn out, and more interesting. It's interesting because we learn more about the pathology of Luke's background, something that the film only implied.  The film’s most famous line--"What we have here is a failure to communicate”--is not in the novel.

It always seemed odd to me that the members of cool hand Luke's prison camp are all white. The southern chain gang is so intensely associated with the race and racism in most depictions of it tend to show chain gangs composed entirely of black men. Of course, we can think of many exceptions, including the 1932 film I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, in the opening scenes from O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). I think there are two main reasons why the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke is entirely right: at the time in Florida when the events of the novel take place prison gangs were segregated. White and black prisoners would not work together in the same chain gang. The second, but related, reason is that in the novel, all the chain gang members are white. But from the perspective of 2017, the all-white chain gang still strikes one as odd.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tennant

Parul Sehgal, a reviewer for the New York Times, has praised My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent, for its portrayal of the central character: a fourteen-year-old girl who has a horrifying life and who doesn’t fully recognize the fact: “With her scabby knees and clear eyes, her native iconoclasm and funny nickname, she recalls the great child characters of American literature, all of them wayward and wounded: Scout from ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Bone from ‘Bastard Out of Carolina,’ Frankie from ‘The Member of the Wedding,’ Huck Finn. Her name is significant, too; like Pip from ‘Great Expectations,’ she has chosen it herself, and it harkens back to yet another character — Turtle, the tomboy detective from Ellen Raskin’s young-adult novel ‘The Westing Game.’”[1] Her name is Turtle. She lives with her father, Martin. It's not clear exactly what Martin does. He may be some kind of repair man or handyman. But he's effective at repairing problems in their house whether they have to do with electricity or plumbing or the water supply or maintaining any number of the many guns and other weapons that he owns. He’s well-read and highly intelligent. He’s a survivalist. A woman he was married to, Turtle’s mother, has disappeared. It's assumed she drowned, or at least that's what Martin tells his daughter. Given what we learn about him, other explanations may explain her absence.

Point of view is everything in this novel. It's narrated through Turtle’s perspective. She rarely speaks, though she thinks a great deal, and Tennant provides access to her thoughts.  She at first seems almost autistic (this is the wrong word) but gradually reveals the intelligence beneath her exterior.  Silence is her protection against the world, including most significantly her brutal father, some sort of failed philosopher, and also his daughter’s incestuous molester.  She's completely under his influence and control. It was shocking to realize that not only is Martin an eccentric survivalist who trains his daughter in survival skills and who tells her that she needs to know how to fend for herself, to protect herself, should it become necessary, but that he is also a child rapist. He has sex with her repeatedly, and this is the fundamental and overwhelming fact the novel confronts. For much of the novel Turtle doesn't think of herself as her father's victim. She doesn't think of herself as a rape victim. Sometimes she thinks that she loves her father and that she doesn't want to lose him and even that she wants to have sex with him. But this is because she is his hostage, and underneath it all he terrifies her. He's abusive of her in non-sexual ways. At one point he slams her to the ground and beats her with a metal rod so badly that she has difficulty walking and is in pain for days.

Turtle gradually recognizes what her father is, especially when he leaves home for an extended period and returns with a 10-year-old girl he picked up at a gas station. He says that he brought the girl home because she needed somebody to take care of her, but by this point in the novel we have learned enough about him to suspect that he has other plans. Turtle herself begins to suspect what those plans are and when one night he carries through with them, we are led to the extended and horrific final pages of the novel.

Martin is so possessive of his daughter that we begin to worry that he has the potential to do more violence to her than he has already carried out. When he learns that Turtle has become interested in a boy who lives nearby, his possessiveness leaps pathologically into action. We don't at first realize what a monster Martin is, because Turtle doesn't think of him as a monster. She thinks of him as her father, whom she loves, as an obstacle, as someone whom she must deal with when he is in temper. Only at the end does she come to see him for what he is. She comes to feel protective of the ten-year-old, she doesn’t want her to be abused, and these feelings motivate her actions late in the novel.

The climax of this novel is horrific. I'm not giving anything away to say that. It's horrific because of what it portrays, and because it's so well handled by the author.

Tennant writes an extremely powerful and lyrical prose that gives this novel its distinctive character. There are moments of over-writing.  Martin's father lives in a trailer near their house. Turtle spends a lot of time with her grandfather and she loves him—he often expresses concern for her. When her grandfather sees the scars on her back, he realizes what he has suspected might be going on all along – that his son is abusing his daughter. He confronts Martin. They have an argument, and the grandfather has a stroke and dies. This is an overwritten scene—I’m not saying it's a badly written; I’m saying it needed to be edited and abbreviated—most of the novel is not over-written.

Turtle is a wonderful character: believable, likable. The reader feels concern for her, anxiety about her safety, as the narrative moves forward. I was sure that a woman had written this novel because of its delicate and perceptive handling of Turtle’s character, because of the concern with child abuse, child rape. It was a surprise to discover that it was written by a man. I don't know much about the psychology of child abuse victims or child rape victims, but Tennant makes you believe in the situation and the characters he describes. He makes you understand how Turtle could be the hostage of her father's ghastly nature. He's a monstrous character, and yet the surprising and in some ways almost miraculous fact about this novel is that it takes you a while to realize the extremity of his monstrousness.

All the people in the novel talk as if they have been taking modern literature classes for years—this includes teenaged boys, their parents, Turtle’s father.  The atmosphere in those moments is artificial.