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My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent – it will leave you breathless

September 15, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent (2017) French title: My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent was at Quais du Polar in 2018 although My Absolute Darling is not crime fiction. After reading it, I understand why he was invited: this is a novel that walks on the thin line between literary fiction and thriller.

Turtle Alveston is fourteen and lives in an isolated cabin on the Northern California coast with her father Martin. Her paternal grandfather drinks himself to death in a trailer in the backyard. Martin is a survivalist. He believes that the world is going to collapse, he doesn’t trust the system and trains his daughter to prepare for the end of the world. He’s also abusive and a totally unfit parent.

When the book opens, it’s Spring and Turtle is in her last year of middle school. She does her best to keep everyone at arm’s length. She doesn’t engage with other students, donning a coat of aggressivity to push everyone away. Her English teacher Anna isn’t giving up though. Turtle fails at her spelling tests and Anna pokes at Turtle, feeling that things aren’t right at home.

Martin is a lunatic with his frightening theories, a sort of guru with only one attendant to his cult: his daughter. Martin is a damaged man, intelligent, charismatic and powerful. He’s controlling and uses every means in his possession to nail his power over his daughter. He manipulates her with love, he threatens her and he’s violent, verbally and physically. He beats her up and assaults her. Martin loves his daughter in a very sick way, he calls her my absolute darling. He wants to own her. He leaves nothing out to ensure that she doesn’t venture outside of the cocoon he has created for her. Except that his cocoon isn’t soft and nurturing, its walls are made of sea urchin.

Turtle’s mother is dead, her grandpa cares about her but is too deep in his drunkard hole to take action. Martin does everything he can to keep Turtle under his spell. He’s her dad, her only parent, her only figure of authority. They are isolated and she doesn’t know anything else.

Turtle finds solace in the nature around her house. She’s tough, knows how to live off the land, how to avoid dangers, how to build a fire, how to orientate herself in the wilderness. Martin and her grandpa taught her these skills. She’s an expert with guns, Martin makes her practice all the time. She is a warrior, accumulating a lot of survival skills and inner strength.

Fourteen is a pivotal age. Puberty hits. Children start to take their independence, of mind and of action. They start to hike the awkward trail to adulthood and parents do not control as much as before what they are exposed to and who they are in contact with. Their own social circle starts to be more important than the family one. Parents stop to be heroes who know everything and are always right and become mere humans. It’s the age where Martin’s control over Turtle is meant to slip and this father is not about to accept it. He can’t let her go.

Several events arrive in a short time span. Anna is more insistent in her follow-up. Turtle rescues Brett and Jacob, two teenagers from the local high school who went hiking and got lost. The outside world makes a dent in Turtle’s shell and begins to get to her. Martin taught her skills to cope with the end of the world and to be self-reliant. She will use these skills to claw herself out of her abusive father’s large paws. She will use them to put an end to her world.

And we, readers, follow her, silent witnesses to all her failings, her strength and her inner pep talks.

She thinks, you will trust in your discipline and your courage and you will never leave them and never abandon them and you will be stronger, grim and courageous and hard, and you will never sit as he sits, looking at your life as he looks at it, you will be strong and pure and cold for the rest of your goddamn life and these are lessons you will never forget.

We are rooting for her. We are horrified by her home situation and we watch her looking for her way out, trying to get out of the mental maze where her father holds her prisoner. She’s like a princess, hostage of a dark prince, except that this princess doesn’t wait idly for her knight to rescue her. She’s been raised to think that one can only count of themselves. Fortunately. And in a sense, she’s right. Where are the adults in this story?

My Absolute Darling is Tallent’s debut novel and it is truly extraordinary. He manages to insinuate himself into the mind of a fourteen-year-old abused girl. We are in Turtle’s mind, seeing the world through the distorting glasses she wears, courtesy of her father’s twisted education.

The novel holds together in every aspect. It’s built like a psychological thriller but it isn’t one. Things happen, one at a time, each one adding a brick to the story, pushing it forward, building up suspense and threat. Some scenes are extremely intense and disturbing, some at home with Martin and some in the wilderness, along the shore. Turtle’s life is surrounded with dangers, at home and outside. She has no real safe place.

Gabriel Tallent shows us how hard it is to go out of an abusive relationship and even more when it is a parent/child one. Turtle loves Martin and hates him at the same time. He loves her and is the one who hurts her the most. In an interview, Tallent says he used the relationship between Albertine and the Narrator in The Captive to draw Martin. (See my billet here about The Captive. It’s entitled Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.) I can see how Proust could be helpful.

There is no attempt at psychology or psychiatry in My Absolute Darling. Tallent never tries to put a medical name on Martin’s behavior. We only understand that he had a destructive relationship with his own father. Tallent doesn’t dig further, it’s not his purpose. He focuses on Turtle and we really want her to succeed and climb out of this dark world to join ours. Even if we are destroying nature at a frightening speed and if this world is imperfect.

My Absolute Darling is an excellent book, unbearable to read at time. I had to put it down sometimes, to reconnect to my surroundings because I was too far away with Turtle and her bad place. I had to bring my mind back from that hellish cabin in Northern California. And that, ladies and gentlemen, means that we are in the presence of a very gifted writer.

Highly recommended. Of course, in France, it’s published by Gallmeister.n

  1. September 16, 2019 at 4:02 am

    I’m uncomfortable about a grown man writing the story of a 14 year old girl (I certainly couldn’t write sensibly about what my daughters and granddaughters were thinking) but hopefully it will pop up in my local library as an audio book and I can see for myself.

    Like

    • September 20, 2019 at 8:30 pm

      I know you are wary of those. I think it worked. A teenage girl is also simply a human and anyone can relate to that.
      I think that this book was a success in the US (at least it is in France), sot there’s a chance you’ll find it at the library.

      Like

  2. September 17, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    This does sound immensely powerful, I can see why you had to take breaks from it. A read for when I’m feeling resilient, I think!

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    • September 20, 2019 at 8:31 pm

      It’s powerful and some scenes are difficult to read. But I don’t think that there were gratuitous. Turtle is not always likeable and Tallent excelled at showing us how her education was such that she has responses that we find shocking.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. September 22, 2019 at 9:27 am

    We’ve had this in the shop, but it hasn’t sold as well as it ought to have done given the various reviews and endorsements. (One of the editions came with a quote or sign of approval from Stephen King.) A pity really as it sounds very compelling.

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    • September 22, 2019 at 9:41 am

      160 000 copies were sold in France, so far. It’s a huge success, probably helped by an excellent publisher and a good presence of the writer in French festivals, book stores and media. Plus, we love American lit.

      It’s worth the hype, really. It’s a tough read but it’s not bleak. There’s a lot of raw energy in it that carries the reader forward.
      I’ve read a very negative review by another reader who answered to the tweet of my review but of course, now I’ve lost it. (This is why I prefer to have discussions on the blog and not on social media)
      I understood her points but didn’t agree with her. It’s a nauseating book at times but I don’t think that the violence is gratuitous or that the ending is wrong. The ending is very American and the book wouldn’t work in another context.

      Turtle is hard to love because she’s missing all the tools to have “normal” relationships with others. She’s a bit wild, in the original sense and the reader interacts with characters with their own perception.
      If you go to this book with judgmental eyes, you’ll find many reasons to hate it and be repulsed. Otherwise, you’ll read a compelling coming-of-age story of a young girl who wants to get out of the mad house she grew up in.

      Like

  4. September 23, 2019 at 12:05 am

    I bought this last year on the strength of a recommendation by the book shop owner but never got around to reading it. I had actually forgotten about its subject matter and now reading your synopsis I wonder if I want to read it. It sounds unbearably grim

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    • September 23, 2019 at 5:46 am

      I confess that it sit on my shelf several months before I got to it. Exactly for this reason.
      Yes, it’s a tough read but it’s not hopeless. It’s built as a thriller, in a way.
      Turtle lives an awful life and being in her head is disturbing and nauseating sometimes but she’s still a character you root for.
      It’s tough but not depressing.
      I’d be happy to hear about your response to it.

      Like

      • September 23, 2019 at 7:38 pm

        Ok, that reassures me somewhat

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        • September 23, 2019 at 7:41 pm

          I’d hate to discourage you to read a book you already own. 😊

          Liked by 2 people

  5. Vishy
    September 29, 2019 at 5:36 pm

    Wonderful, brilliant review, Emma! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts! Gabriel Tallent, here I come! I can’t wait to read this! I can’t wait to find out what happens in the end! I hope Turtle gets free and flies high!

    Like

    • September 29, 2019 at 7:14 pm

      I’m glad my billet convinced you to read it. I’ll be happy to read your thoughts about it. It’s a shocking but excellent book.

      Like

  1. September 20, 2019 at 9:32 pm

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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