My Absolute Darling
Fourteen-year-old Julie “Turtle” Alveston lives with her father, Martin, in rural California, where he trains her in shooting and hunting, and to be distrustful of anyone outside the family. He fears for her future in a lawless, cataclysmic world he believes is imminent, and what will happen when people find out he has been raping her. Her survivalist upbringing has made Turtle physically indomitable and emotionally stunted. Her isolation is so entrenched that she is unable to separate Martin’s paternal affection from his physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Turtle cannot connect with other children –until the day she meets Jacob, a high-school student whose friendship starts a chain of events that will lead to Turtle fighting for her life.
At first, this novel could be mistaken for a post-apocalyptic survival thriller. In some ways it is – although the dystopian hellscape is entirely man-made. It has drawn comparisons to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, paragons of literary misery-porn that are put in the shade here. While there are similarities, this is better, by several magnitudes – it will leave a longer-lasting imprint on the mind.
Stephen King has called Tallent’s novel a masterpiece, and it’s paced like King at his very best – the story drawn taut as a garrotte, the sort of breathless, page-turning tension that elides the space between horror, thriller and a truly disturbing love story. But to celebrate its mastery of genre technique risks sidelining its literary incandescence. It commands attention like an airport thriller without sacrificing any of its sophistication.
From inside Turtle’s head, we see the world as she does: a hostile, indifferent place where women and girls – including her – are inferior animals. The villain in this novel is misogyny. Men are either obtuse or asinine, or in Martin’s case, a bitter revenant of a dying masculinity, chaotic and malevolent. Through the abuse, Turtle adores Martin, even as she is sure he will one day kill her. The writing is beautiful; the exposition of the human condition, indescribably ugly. The kind of existential horror this summons is incredible, and sickening.
To tackle such material so well and craft a novel of such ragged beauty is astonishing. That it has been published into our intellectually timid, censorious literary culture even more so, but your reviewer is glad it has been. ZC
4th Estate, 432pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 1, 2017 as "Gabriel Tallent, My Absolute Darling". Subscribe here.