Reviewed by Kai Jimenez
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING
By Gabriel Tallent
432 pp. Riverhead Books.
We’re often told to never judge books by their covers, but we often still do all the same. If I were to guess the story of Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling by its neon foliage-filled cover, I would probably not think of a child’s screams as amateur surgery is done on her finger in a dirty kitchen, of a rotting corpse of an old dog being pecked at by ravenous crows, of a young girl who has suffered so much, too much, at the hands of the one who was supposed to protect her. No, those weren’t even remotely close to my first guesses.
Tallent’s debut novel is a brutal yet compelling story of a young girl who was forced to grow up too soon. It follows the days of Turtle Alveston, a fourteen-year old survivalist who is as skilled a marksman as she is terrible a speller. She lives in a rundown house on top of a hill with her daddy, Martin, a well-read doomsday prepper with a violent obsession with keeping Turtle for himself. All her life, Turtle believed that it was her and Martin against the world, and even though he tries to break her spirit, she probably deserved it and he was just looking out for her. There was no way her daddy could truly hurt her. He loved her, his kibble, his absolute darling.
A breakfast of raw eggs, walking with her daddy to the bus stop, failing quizzes at school but passing shooting tests at home, and cleaning her guns just before bed — this was the rhythm of Turtle’s life day in and day out. But all this changed when she chanced upon two boys hopelessly lost in the woods — Jacob, a nerdy high schooler who was always brighter than sunshine, and his best mate Brett who loved EZ Cheese just as much as he loved science jokes. As Turtle led the boys out of the woods to safety, she found a world far different from the only one she’s known — a world where people lived in big pretty houses, where kids like her were safe to go on adventures both real and imagined, and, most importantly, where people cared about her, really, actually cared about her. This sudden realization that life need not be so dysfunctional spurs battle-scarred Turtle’s most difficult challenges yet — coming to terms with her reality, finding the courage and strength to rise above her circumstances, and fighting to not only survive, but live on.
With My Absolute Darling, Tallent does justice to the enormous task of artfully portraying abuse without falling into the trap of romanticizing it. Even with his choice of words, Tallent is clear about his intentions — the vivid and beautiful prose describing the lush landscapes of Northern California and the poetic philosophical dialogues and monologues are utterly lost, reversed even, in the moments that abuse takes place. The language mirrors the events — crass, pedestrian, even disgusting.
There was never any doubt that Martin is a terrible man who manipulates the young and impressionable Turtle into never leaving him despite all that he puts her through on a daily basis. He has her so tightly wrapped around his finger that Turtle ends up making excuses and taking the blame for his abuse, internalizing the hatred until it turns into deeply rooted self-loathing. Yet there is a fundamental dissonance that gnaws at you as you go through this book — things you could not quite reconcile in your mind. How could a man as erudite and eloquent as Martin be so animalistic in the way he uses and abuses his daughter, the one he says to be the only thing worth living for? How could the wildly resourceful Turtle, the girl who could weather storms and broken bones, be so maddeningly helpless in the presence of her daddy? How could a landscape so naturally beautiful quietly bear witness to something as unnatural and revolting as Martin’s treatment of Turtle, his own flesh and blood? Why doesn’t she just leave him after everything that he has put her through?
More than his success at depicting abuse so realistically, I think Tallent’s greater achievement is his ability to take the readers right where he wants us, to actively engage us into taking on the role of the helpless outsiders, of people who witness abuse but could do little to stop it. Tallent’s character is so believable and convincing that you sincerely empathize, even if you do not pretend to truly understand what it’s like to be in Turtle’s shoes. You feel frustration when she makes excuses for him, sadness when she blames herself, helplessness when she’s hurt and confused, and triumph for her victories, great and small. Tallent succeeds in creating a character that you could root for, even when she herself persuades you to do otherwise. That’s the thing about this book; you end up feeling so deeply for Turtle that no matter how ugly it gets, how hard it becomes to stomach what’s happening, you will keep reading, if only to find out if she makes it out okay.
My Absolute Darling is a story that demands to be told, but it is also one that should come with a warning: this story is not a happy one, not by any account. It will haunt you in ways worse than any ghostly tale could, because the horrors in this book are very real, and so very human.
Kai keeps an infinite fondness for curiosities under her pillow at night. She finds narratives and tells stories for a living, and is in constant search for fascination in worlds both real and imagined. You can find her on Instagram @rustwithstardust and on Medium @kai.jimenez
[Thoughts and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fully Booked. Then again, we love our authors anyway.]