I’ve been itching to read this novel for months. And it didn’t disappoint. My Absolute Darling is one of the most beautifully written debuts I’ve read. It’s one of the most beautifully written books I’ve read full stop (period). The prose is robust and specific and visceral. At times, reading was so intense that my head ached and I found myself grinding my teeth and clenching my body and gasping for air. It’s rare for a book to do that. It’s the kind of writing that makes me want to reach higher with my own writing.
However, before I wax lyrical about the qualities of this novel, let me make one thing clear: this book is not for the faint hearted. Many will find the scenes of sexual abuse and violence simply too disturbing. I know that, a dear friend, had to stop reading half way through for this reason. More on this aspect to the book later, but first, let me tell you why I loved it so much.
I taught English literature for ten years and my favourite part of the job was sitting with high school kids unpicking awesome language, language that sang, language that made the characters and stories and settings of the books we were reading come to life in our dusty classroom. When the language was really powerful, it would feel as though we had stepped into the fictional world we were reading.
I therefore love books that are written beautifully. I have a weak spot for novels that straddle the borderlines between prose and poetry, like the work of John McGregor (no relative), Michael Ondaatje, the YA author Gae Polisner and now Gabriel Tallent. Let me be clear. The writing I love is not dense or full of self-indulgent metaphors and symbols. Rather, it uses just the right word – the specific word, the only word – for that particular moment in the story.
It’s been a long time since a novel has indulged my love of language so completely. The opening alone – the neglected house where fourteen-year-old Turtle lives alone with her father, Martin, its driveway littered with bullet casings – is beautiful and sets the tone exactly:
The old house hunkers on hits hill, all peeling white paint, bay windows, and spindled wooden railings overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak. Rose runners have prized off clapboards that now hang snared in the canes. The grave drive is littered with spent casings caked in Verdigris.
Specific. Vivid. Deeply evocative.
Evocation of the natural world
In the last few years, nature writing has really taken off – in the UK at least. Books which, in the past, have only really appealed to nature enthusiasts, have gone mainstream. H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald was a trail blazer in this. A beautiful memoir of a woman coping with the grief of losing her father through training a goshawk. I read this when I first moved to America and her writing was so vivid that it made me feel as though, in those brief moments, each day, when I read her words, I was back in England. Other books like Wildwood by authors like Roger Deakin or The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane have also taken off and enticed even the most city-loving readers to inhabit nature through words. My Absolute Darling, however, is the first novel I’ve come across in which nature writing inhabits contemporary fiction. The novel is set in Mendocino, Northern California, and I gather that Gabriel Tallent started writing it in college when he felt homesick for this part of the world where he lived as a child. I think that Hemingway once said that he wrote best about American when he was in Paris.
Sometimes, distance and homesickness makes our absent worlds more vivid.
One chapter, in which the natural world is presented at its most raw and threatening, is when Turtle goes to the beach with her friend, Jacob. They end up getting stranded- and nearly lose their lives. But before the scene goes dark, we get a sense of their wonder as they explore the tide pools and the life therein.
She and Jacob find iridescent-green centipedes, horned sea lemons with lacy gills unfurled, porcelain incrustations of spiral tube worms. They shift more cobbles. Sometimes, the water beneath will be still, the snails clattering across the mother-of-pearl carpets, the hermit crabs lifting their blue-pink clutch of limbs back into their blue-pink turban shells, the sullen-looking clingfish suckered against the stone, stone-colored themselves….
Although I love to read nature writing, the novelist part of me often lament the absence of plot and character in. Tallent has brought both together. An incredible story with brilliantly crafted characters and an incredible setting, portrayed so vividly that you feel as though Turtle herself has taken you by the hand and walked you through the woods and creeks of Mendocino.
Tallent’s evocation of the natural world serves another purpose too. Turtle’s life is deeply broken but the beauty of the world which surrounds her – and which she understands as deeply as her own body – offers moments of redemption and light in this dark tale.
The creation of a monster
Although Turtle is the young protagonist of the novel, it is the creation of her father, Martin, which stays with me. Stephen King, a great advocate of this novel, wrote that Turtle’s father was one of the most ‘terrifyingly believable human minsters to inhabit the pages of a novel.’
Make no mistake: Martin is a psychopath. A monster. The sexual and psychological abuse, the extreme violence, is harrowing and, as mentioned at the beginning of my review, will make this novel too much for many to stomach. But unlike so many other novels about abuse, in which abusers are presented as one-dimensional villains, in this story, Martin creates a character who is all the more terrifying for his complexity – and for the love that Turtle has for him. He’s clever. He reads Descartes. He speaks beautifully. He says so many things that are true. At one point, when he’s called into school because Turtle is failing, academically, he challenges her teachers with these wonderful words:
…you cannot pathologize her boredom and disenfranchisement with a tedious curriculum.
My husband, Hugh, could have uttered those words when we still lived in the UK where the government and exam boards dictated what he taught in the classroom.
Martin raises Turtle to be a strong, self-sufficient woman who understands that her reach can exceed her grasp. He believes in her. He pushes her beyond what she thinks she is capable of. He sees that she is remarkable. In his own, broken way, he loves her.
But of course, he is damaged – and psychologically disturbed. He is possessive. He wants her to himself (there is a whole scene, perhaps the most violent in the novel, in which he repeats, over and over, ‘you are mine,’) and, in the end, he would rather destroy what he loves than let her be free – or let her be loved by anyone else.
The creation of a heroine
At six, she knows how to shoot a gun. At fourteen, she walks around with a Sig Hauer. Even at school. She eats raw eggs and nettle tea. She walks barefoot for miles through the woods of Northern California. She knows how to survive. Her physical and psychological resilience would outstrip that of a Marine. She can name every flower and blade of grass and tree and animal. She is resourceful and imaginative. Capable of humour and great love and tenderness. Her relationship to her grandfather and the grief she experiences when she loses him is heartbreaking.
But, like Martin – because of Martin – Turtle is deeply broken too. She cannot relate to women. She rationalises violence. She is failing at school because she cannot respect their authority – and because she has no faith in her ability to succeed in a world outside that of the woods and guns and her father.
There are moments, like when Martin comes home with a young girl, Cayenne, whom he has kidnapped, when Turtle is capable of great brutality. There are times when we find it hard to love her.
But Turtle’s damage is not irreparable; her ability to feel and relate has not been thoroughly numbed by Martin’s abuse. Turtle understands that there are limits to how much we can hurt another human being.
In one of the most moving scenes of the novel, when she eventually befriends Cayenne and saves her from Martin, we come to understand the power of the human spirit – perhaps the power of the child’s spirit.
I learnt, early on in my writing career, that a character who is saved by external circumstance is not a true protagonist. A protagonist needs to act from within. Needs to find resources independent of external threats or offers of salvation. A true protagonist – a true heroine – needs to save herself. And this is what Turtle does.
Beyond this, of course, our characters do need to find healing and healing does come through others. No man is an island and all that. Indeed, sometimes, the hardest thing for self-reliant heroes like Turtle, is to allow others to help. So, relationships matter. But first, our heroes must save themselves. Otherwise, we leave their stories fearful that they will stumble again.
So, now, to a few of the novel’s weaknesses.
I recently had a fascinating conversation with a friend who works in my local bookstore, Gibson’s in Concord, New Hampshire. She told me that part of her loved the novel – for the reasons outlined above, no doubt. But that she was tired of debut novelists using abuse as a kind of cover-all explanation for damaged children – or damaged protagonists. And I think she has a point.
When I was drawn to My Absolute Darling, I thought it was going to be about a girl, raised by her father, in a kind of survivalist way, deeply embedded in the nature in a place so remote from the modern. I thought that it would be a more sophisticated and intellectual version of a film I saw called Captain Fantastic, the story of a deeply idealistic father who takes his children to live in the wild and teaches them to cast off the trappings of the material world and to be strong and self-sufficient in mind and body. He goes too far, of course. He is fanatical, as such idealists often are. And so he damages them. But not because he is violent or abusive – or certainly not abusive in a sexual way. The film questions his behaviour whilst also showing deep admiration for how extraordinary these children are: strong, lithe, able to forage for food, to hunt, to live in partnership with the natural world, to read philosophy, to play music, to understand themselves and each other.
When I picked up My Absolute Darling, this was the kind of story I was looking for. A book that looked at one father’s idealism, fanaticism, his drive to protect his daughter from a world with which he has become disillusioned. I would also have liked to see Tallent explore a subject that he leaves largely unaddressed. How, when a man or woman loses his partner, their children take on a disproportionate importance in their lives – and how this blurring of lines between childhood and adulthood, between offspring and spouse, can damage them. Martin has lost his wife – it is hinted that he may be responsible for her death. And now Turtle has taken her place, as is often the case for children who live with one parent. No abuse or violence is necessary to explore this complex psychological dynamic.
All this is too say that I think the book could have been just as hard hitting and beautiful and thought-provoking and significant had it explored the dynamic between a parent and a child and how damage can be caused in ways far subtler than sexual abuse and physical violence. After all, all parents damage their children in some way – just because of who we are and what we believe and the direction we pull our children in.
Every time we force a child into our world rather than listening to and watching how they are responding to their own world, we are, in some ways, committing act of force and so violation. It’s a hard pill to swallow for those parents, like me, who are deeply idealistic and who long to impart those ideals to our children. I know that, at times (and sometimes even unwittingly), I might be dragging my girls behind me rather than letting them forge their own way. I know that I must check myself in this every day.
Fiction is a heightened reality. My Absolute Darling does address how a father dominates his daughter and forbids her to inhabit any world other than his own. This, too, could have been explored further.
My friend at Gibson’s Bookstore said: ‘It will be interesting to see what he writes next.’ And she’s right. It’s clear that Tallent is a deeply gifted writer. His ability to craft language, to evoke place, to create extraordinary characters and to tell a good story can only get stronger. Maybe the choices he makes will, over time, become subtler.
Still, with the proviso that this novel is raw and violent and deeply disturbing – and so not for everyone, I would nevertheless recommend it as a piece of extraordinary fiction. Stephen King refers to it as a masterpiece. Well, a flawed masterpiece, perhaps, but yes, it is one of the most remarkable books I’ve read for a long time.
A bit of fun
Just as I was finishing My Absolute Darling, an essential oil blend came through the post which echoes the book in style and spirit. I put the rollerball in this picture because its green colour echoes the nature theme of the novel and the deeply sensual way the story is told. In fact, the list of ingredients – the essential oils – read like one of Turtle’s descriptions of the woods through which she walked, barefoot. I can just imagine her plucking these and stuffing them in her pocket: lime peel, cardamom seed, hyssop flower, cedarwood, chamomile flower. At the end of the book, broken, both physically and psychologically, Turtle tries to create a garden and to keep it alive. Another way in which Tallent uses the natural world is as a metaphor for the life of his heroine. He intimates that nature, though violent and dangerous, can also be deeply healing.
The name of the blend also reminds me why reading books like this are so, so important for writers: it makes us up our game, it challenges us to write better – and also, just as importantly, teaches us what we might have done differently. It helps us to Aspire. I know it sounds kind of kooky – most natural living things do – but the blend, rolled onto my wrists, breathed in deeply, really does lift my spirits and makes me long to be better.