One of the most talked about books this autumn, and my favorite, was My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, $27), by Gabriel Tallent. Shocking and unsettling, at times difficult to read, the novel follows fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston, who feels more at home in nature than she does with her survivalist and damaged father, as she searches for freedom and fights for her soul. Roaming the woods one night, wondering if her father would be able to find her, she meets two lost teenage boys and guides them safely out. And that is the moment she starts questioning her home life. The way Tallent brings you steadily into Turtle’s mind makes you almost feel her pain. He manages to capture her deepest thoughts, her internal struggle, her will to survive. Obviously suffering from Stockholm syndrome, she debates with herself over whether to stay or leave, doubting her worth every step of the way. But she fights and she survives. She is the kind of girl, brave and determined, with whom readers are almost duty-bound to fall in love. Tallent grew up in Mendocino and spent a lot of time outside. His love for the region is evident in Turtle’s view of the place and Mendocino itself is a strong character in the book. This is Tallent’s debut novel. And what a remarkable debut it is!
Two years after the magical Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights, set in Fairyland, Salman Rushdie is back with another, much more realistic novel. The Golden House (Random House, $28.99) begins on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, when an uncrowned seventy- something king, who calls himself Nero Golden, arrives in New York from a faraway country. With his three motherless sons, Nero takes possession of the palace he would call his home. Having arrived under mysterious circumstances, the family also assumes new identities. They take Roman names, trying to reinvent themselves and keep their past hidden, all the while battling their own demons. The youngest son, D, is conflicted over his sexual identity; Apu longs to go back home; and Petya develops agoraphobia. The Goldens’ story is told by their neighbor, René, who becomes fascinated with the family and the various goings-on surrounding them. He gets pulled into their life of mystery, money, intrigue, drama, and crime. Then it all abruptly ends eight years later with the election of “The Joker” as president. Exploring the nature of good and evil and our capacity to change and adapt, Rushdie has loaded this novel with parallels between our world and the one the Goldens live in. “Clowns become kings, old crowns lie in the gutter. Things change. It’s the way of the world.”
Golden Hill (Scribner, $26), winner of the Costa Award, is the first novel by Francis Spufford, author of I May Be Some Time and other acclaimed narrative nonfictions. The year is 1746. Mr. Smith, a young, charming, and mysterious stranger from England, arrives at Lovell’s house on New York’s Golden Hill with a bill of exchange for the breathtaking sum of 1,000 pounds. That alone, aside from Smith’s refusal to disclose anything about himself—where he’s come from and what he’s planning to do with that kind of money in the colonies—creates an aura of mystery and intrigue. As rumors begin to circulate, you’re pulled into the story, eager for answers, along with Manhattan’s social elite. Finding an ally and a friend in the marvelous Septimus Oakeshott, secretary to the governor, Mr. Smith inveigles his way into that elite, attending their dinner parties and becoming a part of their lives. He even develops an interest in one of Lovell’s daughters, the quick-witted and sharp-tongued Tabatha. But then things start to fall apart, and he finds himself in trouble. Quick paced, with extraordinary dialog and well-crafted characters, Spufford’s brilliant historical novel will make you turn the pages fast to find out what Mr. Smith is up to. The beauty of this novel is that you won’t find out until the very final pages.