A novelist who summons a monster runs a terrible risk. Bringing one to convincing life can threaten to eclipse the story’s other characters, particularly the people who are his victims. In his grab-you-by-the-throat debut novel, My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent has created such a monster in Martin Alveston, who physically and sexually abuses his fourteen-year-old daughter. Martin is so fully realized that the daughter Tallent conjures would have to be remarkable to serve as his counterweight. The half-wild, vulnerable Turtle Alveston, whose conscience is the beacon of this dark book, proves up to the challenge. She has a center of gravity all her own.
Martin and his daughter live in isolation in a slowly disintegrating house on the Northern California coast, where “rose runners have prized off clapboards that now hang snarled in the canes.” Tallent grew up in the area, and a deep knowledge of the natural world suffuses his book, which is full of stunning descriptions. When Turtle dives into a spring-fed pool, for instance, “she opens her eyes to the water and looks up and sees writ huge across the rain-dappled surface the basking shapes of newts with their fingers splayed and their golden-red bellies exposed to her, their tails churning lazily.”
Martin believes that the end times are near, courtesy of global warming and environmental degradation. In his eyes, survival skills and an intimate familiarity with guns and knives are at least as important as schoolwork. The walls of Martin’s bedroom are lined with philosophy books by the likes of David Hume and George Berkeley. He is a charming conversationalist and liable to spin a monologue on, say, the nature of human consciousness. Yet his erudite mind is cratered by tar pits. Martin leeches a casual, bone-deep misogyny that his daughter has soaked up and often salts into her self-talk (“You bitch, you can do this, you bitch”), and his temper flares unpredictably.
What makes Martin terrifying isn’t so much the violence he metes out — though when it comes it’s breathtaking. It’s the tension that haunts even the quietest scenes. Living with violence means that each moment is inflected with the potential to be rent open. Though he limns a vicious relationship between Martin and his own father, and the ghost of the early death of Turtle’s mother, Tallent , to his credit, doesn’t spell out how Martin has come to be as depraved as he is. As John Steinbeck understood when he created Cathy in East of Eden, a “malformed soul” can never be explained satisfactorily.
Tallent acquaints us with Martin through Turtle’s observant, loving eyes. She desperately wants to please him — whether by hitting the bull’s eye on a shooting target or acing a vocabulary test — and silently wills him to placate school officials when they threaten to intercede on her behalf. Yet there is a whisper of self-knowledge in Turtle that blossoms, during the course of the novel, into a full awareness of what her life with Martin is depriving her of, and the damage it has done.
That journey is nurtured by her friendship with two boys whom she meets during one of her feral roams in the woods after they’ve become lost on a camping trip. Jacob and Brett — cerebral, nerdy, exuberant — admire and accept her. They call her a “ninja.” She is welcomed into Jacob’s resplendent home, where adults sit at the table with their children, drinking wine and making conversation. She develops an innocent crush on Jacob. She starts to envision her life — and her inner self — differently. She begins to want things that life with Martin can never provide.
Turtle’s awakening, as she continues to hold her father’s love in her heart even as she comes to recognize his ugliness, is the arc of Tallent’s story. My Absolute Darling is full of dramatic events, including a harrowing account of her and Jacob’s self-rescue after being washed out to sea by a giant wave. What makes the novel riveting, though, is Tallent’s gift for describing the psychological terrain Turtle traverses. The dynamics between abusive parents and their children are written about much more often than they are understood by their authors. Tallent captures the nuances.
Scene by scene, he builds the scaffolding for Turtle’s self-realization through gleams of insight. When her father cavalierly chips the blade of a knife she’s been gifted, she thinks, “I need you to be hard on me, because I am no good for myself, and you make me do what I want to do but cannot do for myself; but still, but still — you are sometimes not careful; there is something in you, something less than careful, something almost — I don’t know, I am not sure, but I know it’s there.”
Turtle’s determination to take care of her few possessions amid chaos, her warring impulses to protect her father and exploit his weaknesses, and the cruelties she deals to well-intentioned people who threaten to breach the levies she’s built between herself and the world ring true. The violent climax of the book, spectacular as it is, is less heart-stopping than the moment when Turtle makes the irrevocable decision to break away, determined to protect someone who is even more vulnerable than she is.
Comparisons between My Absolute Darling and another novel published earlier this year, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti, are inevitable. In Tinti’s tale, a retired gun for hire is raising an adolescent daughter, Loo, in a small New England town. Strikingly, both books open with a father coaching his daughter to shoot a gun, and in both the death of a mother haunts the characters. Yet Samuel Hawley is no Martin Alveston. He’s a father with good intentions, trying to escape his past, and his attempts at parenting Loo are loving, if crude.
Tinti’s novel, fine as it is, illustrates the perils of writing a story about larger-than-life parents and their children, for it is Samuel who dominates Twelve Lives. Loo’s coming-of-age struggles are overwhelmed by her father’s turmoil and exploits. In My Absolute Darling, Tallent has created — to use a shopworn but apt description — an unforgettable heroine, whose greatest challenge is to recognize the good and the bad within her and to choose the good.
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