On a rare page or two in “My Absolute Darling,” this brutal, brilliant debut novel by the young American writer Gabriel Tallent, something good happens, and the reader takes a ragged breath, afraid to trust it.
And that’s the point, for that tension helps us feel what the book’s gritty protagonist, 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, experiences every moment as she navigates a lonely adolescence in an isolated, rat-infested house on the wild Pacific coastline in California’s Mendocino County.
Turtle, a quiet, tough girl who scorns and dreads school and is as much a bully as she is bullied, is talented in weird ways. She’s an expert shot, can track animals in the woods, perform minor surgery and has soaked up quite a bit of philosophy and science from her beloved father, Martin, who calls her “kibble” and “my absolute darling.”
Martin is — good God, Martin. May we never meet a man like Martin. He’s terrifyingly real, a charismatic monster who will haunt your dreams. As the book opens, Turtle is starting to realize that something is profoundly wrong in his treatment of her, and her agonized struggle to throw him off and find her own way is the marrow of a gripping story.
When he tells her they are “all right,” “She thinks, we have never been all right and we aren’t ever going to be all right. She thinks, I don’t even know what all right would look like.”
Other, less operatic souls — her drunken old grandfather, a tenacious teacher and two goofy teenage boys, one of whom Turtle falls for — all help open the windows of her growing consciousness, but even more powerful is her blooming internal sense that something is wrong, wrong, wrong with Martin, and by association with her.
A stunning first chapter establishes, in graphic, descriptive language and dialogue, both characters so that we soon know exactly who they are, and exactly what the stakes are in their horrifying relationship. Right away, we are rooting for Turtle, who does not yet know how deep runs the trouble she is in.
Tallent is an amazing writer. His prose is expansive and ornate, wild and bold. Much of it is spent describing the beautiful, dense, dangerous landscape and seascape that both imperil and shelter Turtle. Nature is as powerful a force as it is in a Jack London novel — mighty, beautiful and indifferent to human fortunes.
Reading this book is like watching an electrical storm, both beautiful and dangerous. Works of fiction about child abuse, such as this book, Emma Donoghue’s “Room,” Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” and several works by Joyce Carol Oates, can be excruciatingly hard on a reader, even when they are admirable as literature. A story about that subject had better have something more to offer than hypnotic horror.
“My Absolute Darling” is worth it, with fragile tendrils of beauty and hope tenaciously emerging here and there in the gothic web the story weaves. There’s a faint sense that Turtle will survive, despite profound damage.
Her story is mesmerizing, though occasionally unbearable. May the aptly named Tallent tell us many more.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.
My Absolute Darling
By: Gabriel Tallent
Publisher: Riverhead Books, 417 pages, $27.