I sincerely hope the title of My Absolute Darling does not make any readers think they're picking up a happy-ever-after romance.
Gabriel Tallent's debut novel is just about the polar opposite: a harrowing story of child abuse that spirals into madness and violence. It's a terrific book, beautifully written and emotionally gripping. But sweetness and light it isn't.
The title character of My Absolute Darling is Turtle Alveston, a 14-year-old girl. She lives in the shambles of a farmhouse near Mendocino, on the Northern California coast, with her father, Martin. Her mother died when she was a baby.
The story is told in third person, from Turtle's point of view. In public, she's tough, independent and essentially friendless — when another girl at school tries to make conversation, or when a sympathetic teacher tries to help her, Turtle ices them out. In private, she's heartbreaking, a child whose thoughts are consumed and warped by the constant, brutal criticism of her father, a girl who is desperate to escape but can't bring herself to try.
Martin is, in a word, a monster, as scary a monster as I've encountered in fiction, and there's nothing paranormal about him. He is just a very bad man whose abuse of his daughter is not only psychological; he beats and tortures her, and rapes her as well. And, of course, as abusers do, every day he tells her how much he loves her, how he couldn't live without her.
And no one suspects. His public self is intelligent, charming, handsome. People do wonder about the conditions he's raising Turtle in — the house is isolated and literally being reclaimed by nature, with roses and poison oak not just covering the walls but pushing the boards apart and growing through them; mushrooms grow on the inside windowsills. Martin's technique for cleaning a skillet is to put it on the back porch for the raccoons to scour, and Turtle's daily breakfast is raw eggs, cracked directly into her mouth from the shells.
But in a tiny, rural town, neighbors are loath to interfere, and Turtle isn't asking for help. Tallent paints a disturbing but realistic picture of an abuse victim's mind-set: She fears and hates her father, yet loves him more than life and will do anything to please (or placate) him.
Martin is a towering narcissist, a vicious misogynist — his all-purpose critique of Turtle is "Don't be a little b----" — and a devoted survivalist, intent on preparing himself and his daughter for the apocalyptic effects he expects from climate change.
Turtle struggles in school with vocabulary tests, and Martin makes only cursory efforts to help her. But, at his insistence, she spends hours each day cleaning the guns in her arsenal and honing her sharpshooter skills. She might not be able to spell "synecdoche," but she can put six bullets in three targets in under a second, all head shots "so close together the holes touch."
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Turtle's bedroom has a plywood platform with a sleeping bag and a grim decor: "On wall pegs, her Lewis Machine & Tool AR-10, her Noveske AR-15, and her Remington 870 twelve-gauge pump-action shotgun. Each answers a different philosophy of use."
The Sig Sauer pistol she carries in a concealment holster is stored elsewhere. She wears it even when she walks through the rundown orchard to visit her grandfather, who lives in a trailer on the farm, removing the magazine once she's there because "Grandpa says that when a man plays cribbage with his granddaughter, the two of them should be unarmed."
All this might remind you of a dramatic principal called Chekhov's gun. The Russian playwright wrote, "One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off," and it's a principal Tallent will honor, and then some.
Turtle's situation grows even more dangerous after she rescues a pair of boys who have gotten lost hiking in the forest, where she is entirely at home, and they befriend her. Jacob and Brett are smart, funny, goofy teenage boys from loving families, and they open a new world to her.
Through the middle section of the novel, a disaster at home puts Martin in flight, leaving Turtle to fend for herself for months. She has never been happier. We get a vivid sense of how resourceful and determined she can be when she and Jacob nearly drown while fishing. She's going to need those qualities, because she, and we, know Martin will be back. It will be even worse than she fears.
My Absolute Darling is a strange hybrid of a book, part gorgeous nature writing, part psychologically astute family drama, part action-movie extreme violence. It is not a novel for the faint of heart, but it's a story that needs to be told, and Tallent tells it unforgettably.
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.