MY ABSOLUTE DARLING
By Gabriel Tallent
Riverhead Books, $27, 432 pages
Critics and booksellers who read advance copies of “My Absolute Darling” rave about it. “Few coming-of-age stories deliver [its] sheer lyrical power,” writes the Library Journal in a starred review. “Cancel-your-plans good call-out-of-work,” advises a bookseller from Mystic, Connecticut. “Ugly, beautiful, horrifying and uplifting,” notes Stephen King, who says he will remember it forever.
These encomiums of Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel are absolutely on the money. It tells the story of Turtle Alveston, aged 14 and brought up by her father Martin, a carpenter, a reader of moral philosophy, and an angry loner convinced that the world is a “dying, raped, rotting remnant of what it should have been.”
He believes people have “squandered and destroyed” it because they are “incapable of seeing the world as something outside of themselves.” Challenged about Turtle’s isolation, he retorts, “What understanding can she ever have with such people? There can be none. There can be no negotiation.”
He’s taught Turtle to shoot, and she spends most of her time practicing and cleaning her guns. She goes to school — but does poorly — and she plays cribbage with her grandfather in his trailer, but she has no friends.
“You are mine,” Martin often reminds her, “You are my absolute darling.” He tells her, “You save my life every morning you get up and out of bed.” For him she is “the only numinous thing in a dark and profane world.”
None of these affirmations prevents him from having sex with her “night after night for years.” Nor does it stop him beating her with an iron rod, or testing her by making her do pull-ups on a rafter while he holds a whetted knife between her legs, or forcing her to help him amputate a joint from a child’s finger. Yet his gravitational field is so strong that Turtle endures all this. How?
Because he has taught her to find strength inside herself. He insists she accept pain and difficulty, that she reject the world but is ready to attack it — as he does. And he has taught her that she is like him. Isn’t she?
At the beginning of the novel, she accepts she is cut from the same cloth, and devotes herself to him. “He loves me more than life itself, “she thinks. “He’s not a perfect person sometimes. Sometimes he’s not the person he wants to be. But he loves me more than anybody else has ever been loved.”
But little by little, author Gabriel Tallent shows Turtle understanding more about herself and the world, and realizing she cannot live in Martin’s dogmatic mold. “I will not in the end find I am like you,” she pledges. And having committed herself to this future she turns the very skill he has drummed into her — the ability to focus — onto the task of saving herself.
Mr. Tallent shares Turtle’s concentration. The eagle grasp of this novel on the reader’s attention comes from his fierce focus on her. He takes readers into her mind, and he keeps it there. We see Martin virtually entirely through her ears and eyes.
When he is work we don’t know what he is doing. When he leaves Turtle for weeks and returns with a little girl, we learn only what he says about his trip. When he plays poker with his pals, we know only what Turtle overhears. The effect is that the sheer menace of the man never leaves our minds because it never leaves Turtle‘s.
That menace — the terrifying knowledge that at any minute Martin can explode into angry peroration or violent action — is intensified by the paucity of other characters. Turtle’s grandfather, her teacher, and her mother’s old friend appear briefly, but the beam of attention barely grazes them. It spotlights Turtle and Martin so exclusively that it’s a surprise to learn that their house in seemingly remote woodlands on a lonely Californian shore is actually close to Mendocino.
The intense focus makes Martin and Turtle seem brilliantly, and almost painfully, real. Both are triumphs of fictional characterization. Mr. Tallent also writes affectingly about landscape. He can picture small wonders such as heads of grain, blades of fescue, and wandering blackberries as well as panoramas.
When Turtle takes off barefooted into the forests, he paints their magnificence lovingly. When she is stranded on an island he vividly evokes the power of the sea and its rocks. Night comes on. It’s cold. Turtle and her companion struggle to light a fire. They could die. You feel the terror of the elements. By placing Turtle in their midst, Gabriel Tallent makes you see her as another force of nature.
And all this makes it hard to put down this book, even though it’s difficult reading at times, and it affirms those advance reviews. It is indeed a powerful book by an author of extraordinary skill.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Massachusetts.
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