There’s been a huge amount of positive, excited build-up towards the publication of “My Absolute Darling”, a new novel by a new writer, Gabriel Tallent (who is aptly named). One often is concerned by marketing hype these days, as there’s so much of it, and the product rarely lives up to its advance billing.
“My Absolute Darling” is phenomenal, written to near perfection in rather dense yet clear prose. The book centers around Julia “Turtle” Alverson, the only child/daughter of father Martin (Turtle’s mother is long dead, though of vague circumstances); Martin is a survivalist, living in Mendocino, California, near some of the most affluent people in The Bay Area, yet living completely apart, with no one around his falling-down house except his own father, who lives nearby in a ratty old trailer. Although the novel centers almost entirely around the relationship between Martin and Turtle (whom he calls “kibble”), the secondary characters who emerge later in the novel are as brilliantly delineated as these two are. But what a relationship…..Martin has been psychologically and, increasingly, physically abusing Turtle, under the misguided belief that the world is coming to an end (his concerns are more environmental than political). He sets up physical tests for her, to make her strong and self-sufficient, or seemingly so. He is, in reality, abusive and mean, though his better side does surface more often than not: that’s the terrible paradox for Turtle, and, as such, the same for the thousands of abused women in this country (and elsewhere). “You’re mine”, Martin repeats endlessly to his daughter…..”I made you”. The rapes seem to have begun when Turtle was pre-adolescent, but her awareness of what’s going on comes with adolescence.
Living surrounded by nature, the ocean, and various flora and fauna, Turtle knows how to manage herself in the wilds, and also has an amazing sense of direction wherever she wanders, all taught to her by Martin. Some of Tallent’s most astonishing writing is about the natural environment, and how it connects and interweaves. Tallent knows his stuff, and the writing is often truly gorgeous as his describes the living environment around Martin and Turtle. (When Turtle wanders, she knows that Martin will both find her and beat her, and those beatings get worse as she enters her teenage years). On one such wanderings, Turtle runs into two high school boys, from her school (where she is very distant, vague, convinced she’s ugly and stupid, from her father, of course), and, after following them for miles, convinced they’re lost, she does introduce herself, but not before she’s sighted them repeatedly with various weapons she carries. She sees danger everywhere around her, though it takes
her awhile to understand how bad it is for her at home; that awakening is the core of the novel. She is astonished by the sheer normalcy of these two boys, though one possesses and eccentricity which truly appeals to Turtle: she has her first crush, and it’s amazing that she doesn’t hate men (she’s been trained, instead, by Martin , to hate women, including herself).
That a denouement will take place between father and daughter is self-evident from nearly the beginning of the novel. It’s brilliant and very moving, to say the least, though I don’t want to spoil it for potential readers. What makes Tallent so brilliant is his understanding of Turtle’s ambivalence about her father, whom on some level she thinks and probably does love, though one teacher in her school sees all the signs of an abused girl in her behavior there, and this teacher will reappear later in the novel to help Turtle through her healing (which, one understands, will never be complete). That such evil should exist within such natural beauty is a great strength of the novel, and of the author’s. The occasional interactions between Martin and his own father are fraught with potential violence, and the grandfather’s one attempt to save Turtle is met with abject disaster. Turtle has, in essence, been reared to save herself, and that she will admirably do.
My Absolute Darling (one of Martin’s expressions for Turtle) is probably a masterpiece, a truly rare achievement for a new writer, to boot. I found no flaws anywhere in this amazingly riveting novel, and the author’s understanding of the psychology of abuse is incredibly sophisticated. On top of all that, Tallent has created, in Turtle, one of the most amazing and memorable characters anywhere in recent contemporary fiction; we both admire and like her through all her travails. My Absolute Darling may be the novel of the year.