My Absolute Darling is an endearment from anyone else’s lips, but from Martin Alveston to his daughter Turtle (real name Julie, aka Kibble), it is a term of possession and ownership of the worst kind.
This debut novel by American Gabriel Tallent, centres around Turtle and her father. Turtle’s mother died before she had a chance to remember her, and her father lives in survivalist mode in a run down filthy house, readying his 14 year old daughter for the end of the world. He also physically, verbally and sexually abuses her and Turtle sees no worth in herself when the book begins, everything is her fault and her future is fixed and non-negotiable.
She stands up out of the tub and sees her figure reflected in the picture window, Martin behind her, leaning forward in the chair, squinting, scraping his thumb down the side of his jaw, and both of them looking at her, long legs barred black and green with bruises. She takes a towel from the rack and wraps it around herself and walks past him, her gait lopsided and short.
The book is filled with detail, everything Turtle does, sees and lives through is described in infinate detail. This may drive some people crazy, I found it poetic and gripping at times, and at others, just too bleak and confronting. Many people have made a comparison to Cormac McCarthy, one of my absolute favourite authors. I wouldn’t go as far as to say he’s that good, but the similarities are there and subsequent novels may nudge him closer.
The book is set in Mendochino California, the northern coastal town where Tallent grew up. The winswept coasts, cliffs and forrests are described in detail and Turtle knows every inch of her Daddy’s land and beyond as she goes for long walks for days to escape despite what she knows is waiting for her when she gets home. She knows how to look after herself when she needs to, and when she meets up with two teenage boys lost in the woods, her skills come to the fore. Meeting them also provides a turning point for Turtle, offering her a new perspective, a chance to glimpse a life that might be different than she had always settled for and believed she had to endure.
There were moments in this book where I really cringed and felt uncomfortable and I admit to skipping a few pages that described a rather harrowing medical procedure in gory detail.
I was always deeply engaged in stories, novels, philosophy that talked about how to be a good person and how to live a just life in the face of injustice and tragedy,” Tallent said in an interview with Paste Magazine.
This book has certainly drawn mixed reviews, from ravings from Stephen King to reviews asserting this is yet another book written from a male perspective about the abuse of women for the titliation of the reader. I found it both compelling and disturbing in equal measure. Tallent certainly has an eye for detail and very descriptive prose and I did get the inner turmoil of Turtle, so attached to her father and so desperate for his love, but knowing, deep somewhere, it wasn’t how her life should be. I do recommend it and I felt it was worth reading. I was certainly gripped and found myself rooting for Turtle and wishing her a better life and relief from the horror that was her life. I would add a caveat that if you are disturbed by graphic abuse and cruelty, you may want to give it a miss however.
My Absolute Darling
by Gabriel Tallent
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand