For this month’s TOAST Book Club we review My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent.
Fourteen-year old Turtle lives in a decaying house on the edge of the wilderness with her father, Martin. Danger encircles her: spent rifle casings litter the drive, overgrown roses snarl the clapboards, poison oak creeps through the walls. But the biggest threat to Turtle is Martin himself: a man as tall and broad as a door, whose professed love for her manifests itself in savage ways.
Turtle is tall for her age and ‘coltishly built’, with almond-shaped eyes, thick blond hair and a face that is too lean, for reasons we soon discover. At school she is a pariah: she has no facility with language, can neither spell nor define words, but is ‘quiet and watchful, attentive to faces, can read almost everything.’ She cannot fathom why her teacher Anna has taken an interest in her, when Turtle herself is consumed with self-loathing.
At night she listens to her father rail against a common humanity that is killing itself, ‘slowly and ruinously’ poisoning its own bed. Martin is a complex character who reads Hume by firelight, cooks elaborate meals, insists on walking Turtle to the school bus, and struggles in his own words ‘to hold back the darkness.’ He operates on the farthest margins of society, increasingly unable to navigate its mores – a fact that Turtle understands only too well.
But he has also taught her things: how to live in harmony with nature, how to dig deep to find strength, and how to survive against the odds. From the age of six, she has been relentlessly schooled: Turtle is an expert marksman, can wield a knife the way other teens use a mobile phone, can find shelter, food and warmth in the wild. And it is these skills which ultimately save her.
But Martin’s lessons come at a terrible price, frequently tipping over into almost unspeakable brutality. At night Turtle waits silently upstairs, listening to her father pace the room below until – almost inevitably – he comes for her, lifting her from her bed and carrying her back to his own. There he takes his pleasure, kissing and cursing her in equal measure, while she ‘holds it all within the private theater of her mind, where anything is permitted.’
Her only escape is to the forest. In the mornings she purifies herself in a local spring: a ‘well of cold, clear, iron-tasting water, big as a room, thatched with logs worn feathery by age.’ Beneath the water Turtle draws her knees up to her chest and opens her eyes, looking up to ‘the basking shapes of newts with their fingers splayed and their golden red bellies exposed to her, their tails churning lazily.’ It is here she finds the ‘solace of cold places.’ And it is here she meets two teenage boys who become her bridge to the outside world, unleashing a chain of events that will enable her to reclaim herself.
Widely hailed as the debut of the year, My Absolute Darling is a fiercely-evoked and utterly gripping tale of abuse and survival. Tallent grew up in the wilds of Mendocino County in Northern California, a setting vividly and meticulously recreated. The only child of two feminist, intellectual mothers, he spent his youth bushwhacking the terrain with a copy of the Iliad in his pocket, all of which informs the novel. Tallent has publicly lamented ‘the absence of women survivors in male fiction.’ In Turtle he has created an unlikely heroine for our times, a teenage warrior who must overcome the darkest corners of herself, and vanquish her oppressor, in order to survive.
Images by Laura Oosterbeek
The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin. Betsy is the author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected], an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. The book club exists in a purely digital space and we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below. All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win one of our new tote bags.