My Absolute Darling is Gabriel Tallent’s first book. I hope it is the first of many because he is a fierce new talent. Turtle is a singular protagonist, an independent and insular fourteen-year-old whose paranoiac father has trained to survive the coming environmental and social apocalypse. She knows how to defend herself, to forage, and is most comfortable in the woods. She is less comfortable in school where she struggles with vocabulary quizzes and the insistent questioning of a teacher who suspects all is not right for her at home.
She has many names. At school, they call her by her birth name, Julia. Turtle is the one she prefers. Martin, her father, calls her Kibble and her grandpa calls her SweetPea. “My absolute darling” is what Martin calls her when he is raping her. By the end of the first chapter, the outlines of Turtle’s life are stark, vivid, and painful.
Part of coming of age, of growing up, is individuation. Martin cannot tolerate that. He insists that she belongs to him and is enraged by her withdrawal and silence, by her “inwardness.” But she knows she is herself, not him, not just part of him, but she is trapped by isolation and love for her father. After a crisis, though, he takes off, abandoning her. It’s like a summer sabbatical, in a way. She develops friendships, glimpses a different world that is more ordinary and connected, and even falls in love. She imagines a different self, a different Turtle, and wonders if she can free herself or will love and pity trap her with her father.
My Absolute Darling is sometimes very difficult to read. By the end of the first chapter, I was horrified and almost put the book down. I had already recognized the author’s beautiful prose, but I did not know if I could stomach the subject matter. It is horrific, in part because there is this conflict within Turtle between her love for her father and social taboos. When he molests her, she feels loved, at least in part. It’s gross, repellent, and ugly, but it is how incest continues, how molesters hold power over their victims. If ever a book needed trigger warnings, though, this one does.
The language is sometimes raw and ugly. Other times it is just so beautiful. A spider has a speculative creep. When Turtle is walking in the woods and tide pools of Northern California, there is such beauty, though it is balanced by the rough violence of nature. There is never a moment without that edge of violence, whether it’s a tarantula killing a mouse or scavengers ravaging an animal corpse. Even gardening is a struggle against nature red in tooth and claw.
There is something claustrophobic about the book, with how Martin has isolated Turtle and how the woods close in at times. There is no ease. It is fast-paced, no rest for Turtle or for the reader. It is violent, raw, painful, and ultimately rewarding. It is a rough book to read, but richly rewarding if you can stick it out. After I returned to the book after that first chapter, I read straight through to the end.
My Absolute Darling was released this week. I received an e-galley from Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, through Edelweiss.
- My Absolute Darling at Penguin Random House
- Article by Gabriel Tallent on writing My Absolute Darling
- New York Times review/author bio