My Absolute Darling was the most controversial novel of 2017, its protagonist, Turtle Alveston, perhaps the most painful to confront.
Gabriel Tallent’s debut is in many places brilliantly written, compulsive and moving. It is also, in places, brutal, ugly and repulsive. I will admit from the start that I have problems weighing these out in my own mind and coming to any balanced conclusion about the book’s merits, so my aim here is simply to offer some thoughts that might help you decide whether to read it and enter the debate.
Turtle is also known as Julia (in school) and Kibble (which is a dog food). She lives with her father in a broken down shack that used to be a decent farmhouse with well-cared for land. Now the place is a wreck and the land overgrown. The implication is that this decline has taken place since the death of Turtle’s mother, although this is not made explicit.
Turtle’s father, Martin, is a survivalist. What this exactly entails is also unclear, but there are vast stores of food in the cellar and an armoury of guns in the house. Turtle, in the early stages of the book, is obsessed with guns. She learned to shoot when she was six and is now, at 14, a crack shot capable of splitting a playing card held up end-on. Guns play a big part in this book and the details about disassembling them, cleaning them, lining up their sights and practising with them are exhaustive.
Although in his own way he loves his daughter, hence the title, Martin is a sadistic and abusive monster. Charismatic, good-looking and tough, he claims to be bringing up his daughter to cope in a post-apocalyptic world. The one consistent thread in his parenting of Turtle is his desire to make her physically and mentally tough and independent. Except that is not what he really wants. Turtle’s independence needs to be dependent on him. Yes, it’s confusing.
Tallent takes great pains to depict the brutality of Turtle’s home life. The day starts with bottles of beer and for Turtle, a raw egg cracked single-handedly directly into her mouth. The house is almost derelict, the electricity is dangerous, everything in the kitchen is coated in filth. This would be white trash homeland were it not made clear that Martin is a lot more complicated than that. He is intelligent, thoughtful and well-read, particularly in philosophy. He also seems to have a useful supply of dollars although we never know where they come from.
The most controversial part of My Absolute Darling concludes the first chapter although it recurs in various forms through most of the book. Very explicitly, the sexual abuse of Turtle is described. And I mean explicitly and crudely. But also poetically: “Her throat lies against the pillow, filled with papery wet leaves, like she is a cold seep in autumn, the wintry water sieving through them, peppery and pine-tasting, oak leaves and the green taste of field grass. He believes her body to be something that he understands and, treacherously, it is.”
And I find this problematic. This is child abuse of the most severe kind but it is wrapped up in poetic language. I can understand that, in the claustrophobic circumstances of their intense co-existence, Turtle is confused, both wanting and hating her father’s abuse and then hating herself for wanting it. But I have problems with poeticising and romanticising it, particularly perhaps when it is written by a man.
On the poetry of the landscape I am more comfortable and more impressed. Tallent clearly knows and loves the countryside of north California, its flowers and plants, its mammals and its sea life. And he writes beautifully about them even if occasionally in too much detail and at too great a length.
Turtle is almost a feral being and her capacity to survive in the landscape is put to the test when she finds two lost boys from her school, one of whom she falls for. You would not have to work too hard to predict her father’s reaction to her loving someone else.
My Absolute Darling is in many ways an impressive book. It is certainly an impressive piece of writing. Hype comes no bigger than a quote from Stephen King across the front cover: “The word ‘masterpiece’ has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.”
I am not sure that I agree with King on this (and it amuses me that Tallent’s writing breaks just about all of King’s guidelines in his On Writing). Much is unrealised, there is a fair amount of repetition, some characters are unconvincing, the denouement is a bit Hollywood. But there is certainly a raw visceral power about this book which is very impressive if you are prepared to enter the moral soup.
My Absolute Darling
Author: Gabriel Tallent
Publisher: 4th Estate, fiction