Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (4th Estate, £12.99) has the word masterpiece emblazoned on the cover, alongside quotes from several famous authors telling us how brilliant it is. It can be difficult to see through this hype and find the true novel, but let’s try.
Fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston lives with her father, Martin, a survivalist type who’s taught her how to fire a gun and use a hunting knife from an early age. He abuses his daughter, trapping her in a circle of love and pain. When Martin brings home another young girl, Turtle at last finds the courage to confront the man who has so dominated and controlled her life.
This is a bloodstained book, etched with violence, with unflinching depictions of abusive sex and desperate love. Yet from beginning to end the writing is overloaded with beauty. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book so in love with its own virtuosity as this. It’s a double-edged sword: the brilliance holds the book back from that final true depiction of life. A novel needs flaws, wounds of its own, that correspond to the characters’ flaws: cracks to let in a little light. But this is an amazing debut: it will be fascinating to see where Tallent goes next.
In Prague Nights (Viking, £14.99) Benjamin Black turns his hand to the historical thriller. In 1599 a young doctor called Christian Stern arrives in Prague, hoping to make his fortune. Instead, he discovers the body of a young woman, her throat slit. The victim is none other than the Emperor’s mistress. Stern is employed to find the killer’s identity, a task that takes him deep into the corrupt and shadowy world of the court, where the black arts of the English magician John Dee hold as much sway as diplomacy and torture.