My Absolute Darling: A compelling debut about horribly tainted love

A remarkable California teen comes to a realisation about her predatory father

Gabriel Tallent: nuanced exploration of a traumatised female

Gabriel Tallent: nuanced exploration of a traumatised female

Sat, Sep 9, 2017, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
My Absolute Darling

ISBN-13:
978-0-00-818522-0

Author:
Gabriel Tallent

Publisher:
Fourth Estate

Guideline Price:
£10.99

Turtle Alveston is a remarkable heroine. At just 14, she’s a crack shot with a gun, knows how to survive in the wilderness without food and is able to save the lives of her friends by her vast knowledge of nature. Turtle is also “an illiterate little slit”, according to her father, Martin, a twisted individual whose libertarian ethos and autodidacticism are merely a cover for a gruesome sexual predator.

She was christened Julia by her mother, who died in suspicious circumstances when Turtle was a child, but Martin nicknames her “kibble”, reducing her to dog food in their daily conversations. Martin, a boorish misogynist who routinely rapes his daughter on their isolated property on the Mendocino coast, prides himself on being a survivalist, the last man standing when the apocalypse hits.

What makes Gabriel Tallent’s debut so compelling is that Martin has passed on his knowledge to his daughter. Turtle is on the one hand a victim of horrific abuse, but she is also a whip-smart, instinctive and courageous young woman who has been trained by her father to survive the most vicious of attacks. My Absolute Darling is a gritty and complex novel, as it charts a harrowing year in Turtle’s life where she must choose to kill or die.

There are echoes of Ma’s bravery in Emma Donoghue’s Room, or the resilience of Cormac McCarthy’s protagonists as they struggle to stay alive. Tallent’s world is shocking in the truest sense of the word. Turtle’s voice lurches from self-loathing to learned misogyny as she tries to contend with the ordinariness of high school, walked to the bus every day by “her daddy”.

Morally skewed world

At night time, “his touch brings her skin to life, and she holds it within the private theatre of her mind, where anything is permitted”. Martin’s manipulation of his daughter since she was a child sees her love him and long for him and simultaneously be petrified: “There is so much to him, so much depth, and she wants that again, the heft and the weight of him, and everything he takes from her.”

Her daddy has taught her to shoot, to hunt, to drive, even the best way to cook a filet mignon. His voice on everything from climate change to the frailty of women seeps into Turtle’s mind and gives him an omnipotence over his daughter that is queasily believable: “You’d put up with a lot. Just for that attention. Just to be close to that big, towering, sometimes generous, sometimes terrifying mind.”  

Martin has done his utmost to isolate his daughter, whose mother apparently “went abalone diving and never came back”. An alcoholic veteran grandfather who lives in a nearby trailer and a kindly high-school teacher both sense that Turtle is in danger but neither prove a match for the formidable predator. It takes a chance meeting with two teenage boys, Brett and Jacob, for Turtle to begin to realise how morally skewed her world is. Saving the boys from the wilderness, Turtle is invited to dinner in Jacob’s and can see from the easy-going domesticity “a whole inheritance of love” that she has been denied.

Slasher movie

The boys’ voices are overwritten, sometimes to the point of caricature, but they contrast well with the darkness of Turtle’s existence. For such a weighty topic, Tallent never lets the narrative flag. In the background there are adventurist subplots, the hippie culture of Mendocino, sudden deaths, glimpses of normal high-school life and, crucially for Turtle’s development, the introduction of another young girl in the novel’s final third. When the traumatised 10-year-old Cayenne is brought home one day by Martin, it forces Turtle to action. The ensuing scenes build to a frightening climax that has all the tension of a slasher movie.

Born and raised on the Mendocino coast in California, Tallent spent two seasons leading youth trail crews for troubled teens in the back country of the Pacific Northwest and used his experiences in the wilderness to inform the events of the novel. In the US the book was bought by the same editor who acquired Paula Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Tallent’s exploration of a traumatised female heroine is more nuanced.

Turtle endures excruciating pain, such as a scene where Martin forces her to physical and emotional exhaustion as she dangles over a knife placed upright between her legs. Elsewhere he beats her with a poker and threatens that he’ll watch “her little corneas dry up like fish scales”. Despite years of torture, she is still able to recognise a less tainted version of love. At one point in the book, she confesses that “her moments of happiness occur right at the margin of the unbearable”. Readers will stay with this unflinching heroine until the end in the hope that life will deal her a better hand than this.