Many superlatives have been used to describe My Absolute Darling (4th Estate HarperCollins 2017) by Gabriel Tallent, not the least of which is Stephen King announcing it as ‘a masterpiece’. This vivid and compelling book, every bit as harrowing as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, takes us to the very brink of our emotional capacity, and then throws us off the edge. This is a disturbing book people with disturbed characters. It canvases a variety of issues, notably sexual abuse, so if that is a trigger warning for you, you should be wary of reading this novel.
But despite its content – or perhaps because of it – this is an astounding book, especially as it’s a debut. Turtle is 14 years old and lives with her father Martin in the wilderness of northern California. (Martin’s father also lives on the property in a caravan.) Surrounded by harsh bushland and edged by the dangerous sea, they live in a wooden house with enough provisions to last three people three years. Martin drills into Turtle a knowledge of philosophy and self-sufficiency; they use their own tools to fix whatever’s broken, she can drive a truck and skin an animal. And they have guns – lots of guns. Turtle has a whole armoury of her own. She knows how to take a gun completely apart, how to clean it and service it and put it back together. Martin forces her to practice target shooting until she is perfect. He teaches her to have faith in her own convictions; he makes her brave. The casual nonchalance with which this family keeps weapons is a telling indictment on the state of America’s tolerance for weapons, its appetite for personal security and its derision of gun control.
The darker side of Martin is that he views Turtle as his possession; ‘you are mine’ he often repeats, and he has no intention of allowing anyone else to be a part of her life. The physical, sexual and emotional abuse he enacts on her is frightening and insidious. He is one of the worst characters I have read in recent memory – not only because of how bad he is, but because of how simultaneously ‘good’ he is to her. Their relationship is bound by terrible secrets and unrelenting guilt, by isolating love and genuine pride, by fear and revulsion and adoration. All of these emotions wind together, holding Turtle and her father fast in a terrifying dance towards death. We know the story will end badly, but we don’t know how badly, or for whom.
Turtle struggles at school – despite all her practical skills she cannot manage vocabulary or friendships. But when she meets Jacob and his friend Brett, she glimpses a life outside her own; she has a whiff of what can only be seen as normality, and freedom.
So many aspects of this book are perfectly rendered. Tallent’s description is inspiring. The depiction of the natural world – the animals and plants, the life of the ocean, the weather, the physical environment – are all absorbing, laid out in intricate detail. The setting absolutely anchors us in place. The insight into the psyches of both Turtle and her father, and the other characters, is spot-on, capturing the two-edged swords of love and hate, of loyalty and betrayal. And the action is relentless and page-turning, the plot racing forwards towards the inevitable end. I found it very difficult to put this book down, despite the horrific content, despite the creeping sense of malice, despite the awful feeling that nothing was going to work out well for anyone.
And yet, the ending, when it comes, despite being as bad as we fear on so many levels, also has a kernel of hope, a tendril of possibility for those caught up in this maelstrom. A gentleness that reminds us that no matter how dire the circumstances, the human heart is capable of growth and change, of forgiveness and healing.
The strength of the characterisations in this book are superb – each of the characters is rendered with such nuanced grace that we comprehend them equally, even flawed Martin, who is so hard to like. And by the end, Turtle equips herself with such force, such powerful will, that we can only marvel at her resilience. She yearns for the simple life we all take for granted. She yearns merely to survive, and perhaps to survive the love of her father most of all.