My Absolute Darling written by Gabriel Tallent is a debut novel with a lot of buzz surrounding its launch. Stephen King describes it as a ‘Masterpiece’, and other terms have been used from outstanding to exceptional and unflinching storytelling. Although I was pleasantly surprised by the vibrancy of the prose, it did not entice me completely.
My Absolute Darling tells the story of Turtle Alveston, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives alone with her father. From the very first page we, the readers, get a sense of things not being quite that normal between the two. It’s the way she hesitates before following her father into the ‘hunkering house on its hill,’ and listens to the engine ticking as it cools down. Beautifully written, in its simplicity. Then she follows him into what once was a beautiful house, the ancestral home cared for by her grandmother years before Turtle was born. The house now doubles as a home and shooting range, where her father Martin trains her as if she were a combat soldier. And indeed she does know everything there is to know about guns, and how to clean and shoot them. But in the first chapter, we also know her father is not a normal loving father; he abuses her in every way possible – mentally, sexually and physically. Normally, I would have stopped reading here but the prose is so ‘beautiful it just sings off the page’ as Stephen King put it; so I was hooked. Tallent takes his time in his description of every little detail, which plant grows where to the characterization of the other characters. There is the loving grandfather, a war veteran, who apparently abused his son Turtle’s father when still a child, and her schoolteacher Anna, who senses that there is something really wrong in Turtles life but doesn’t know what to do.
And there is Turtle who loves her father and protects him, and thinks her life is normal but also knows it isn’t and is trying to put everything into perspective by alternating between self-loathing and hating her father. And all this is thought-provoking, but then there’s something about the plot of the book. Her teacher suspects, but does not act, her grandfather does not suspect but does take action, with tragic consequences for himself and Turtle. And she meets a boy, well two boys, but falls in love with one of them, Jacob, and as far as coincidence goes, the other boy’s mother was Turtle’s mom’s best friend. And also, there seems to be something funny about Turtle’s mom’s death, but this is never fully explained in the novel.
Halfway through the novel Turtle’s father disappears and Jacob starts to look after her. As she picks up her life alone at the house, he brings her groceries and even gets his mother and sister to go shopping with her for a bra. Very Young Adult here, and then she and Jacob are washed out to sea while eel fishing only barely surviving their ordeal. But afterward nothing happens; this plot point just seems to be planted in the book for no reason. So is this put in to show how tough Turtle is? But, we already knew that after the first beating and Turtle gets herself off to school, limping and in utter pain.
Then her father returns after an absence of three months, and surprise, surprise, he has now another young girl with him, the 10-year-old Cayenne. So now, you would think Turtle is an independent thinker, but no, he gets her to do something devastating that for me was totally unbelievable. I won’t elaborate and include too many spoilers, but I would love to hear your views on this if you’ve read the book?
My conclusion, this novel could indeed be a masterpiece if it had had a good editor. I found the dialogues flat, with a lot of repeating to and fro of what was being said, the descriptions of the meadows, plants, and house become repetitive, and the climax scene at Jacob’s house totally over the top, and personally I would have preferred a less American cliché ending. The Twilight Saga clearly had some influence on the writer; Cayenne reads the series, Turtle’s boyfriend’s name is Jacob but this book is beyond Young Adult in its descriptions, the violence and the issues at the story’s heart. For me it was a thought-provoking and very intriguing read and as a whole is a beautiful novel clearly targeted at an adult literary readership.