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My Absolute Darling

Review

My Absolute Darling

Joining the ranks of recent first novels like Chad Harbach's THE ART OF FIELDING and Garth Risk Hallberg's CITY ON FIRE, Gabriel Tallent's debut novel has attracted considerable buzz, including a profile of the 30-year-old author in the New York Times. "In a literary world that can sometimes feel claustrophobically close-knit, Mr. Tallent seems to have arrived fully formed," Alexandra Alter wrote in her piece.

On the evidence of MY ABSOLUTE DARLING, Alter's assessment seems a bit overheated. Tallent's raw ability is considerable, but the novel suffers from his inability to harness his storytelling gift to a disciplined style and overcome a clear tendency toward self-indulgence.

MY ABSOLUTE DARLING is a grim, often terrifying, novel. Set on the coast of Northern California, near Mendocino, it's the story of 14-year-old Julia "Turtle" Alveston and her survivalist alcoholic father, Martin, who share a barely inhabitable house in the woods. Turtle is the victim of incest (no plot spoiler, since the first incident is described barely 20 pages into the novel), and other horrific physical and psychological abuse. Several stomach-turning scenes, including a beating with a poker and a bizarre episode of torture with a knife, are so gruesome that the book almost certainly would earn an NC-17 rating if it were a movie. The fact that Martin casually quotes Greek mythology and Descartes, and may himself have been the victim of abuse at the hands of a father who's one of the handful of people trying in vain to rescue Turtle, doesn't make him in the least bit more sympathetic.

"In MY ABSOLUTE DARLING, Gabriel Tallent demonstrates true storytelling talent.... If he's able to temper his exuberance with a measure of self-restraint, it will be one that holds in it the potential for greatness."

If MY ABSOLUTE DARLING simply were a one-dimensional portrait of such monstrous villainy, it would be easy to consign it to the pulp fiction pile and move on. But in Turtle, Tallent has created a believable and appealing protagonist, one who thinks of herself as “a girl things go badly for,” despite her sharpshooting skills and her mastery of the wilderness life. Her desperate need to escape the grip of a father who's in the process of destroying her, while he's teaching her the “ruthlessness, courage, and singularity of purpose” he thinks will help her survive in nature and the harsh, unforgiving world he sees all around him, creates an engrossing conflict.

And so we readily can identify with Anna, the teacher who recognizes Turtle's keen intelligence but can't motivate her to prepare for tests, and Jacob Learner, the bright, attractive older teenager from an affluent family whose affection the girl is incapable of returning, in our dismay at the power Martin holds over her. And in watching Turtle display how "her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like him, but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him," we grow to admire her while dreading the coming of what we fear will be a tragic fate.

Tallent's action scenes, especially those involving confrontation between Turtle and Martin (and one of a near drowning), are riveting. But for all their intensity, the novel too often founders on overwrought passages describing the wildly beautiful landscape, fauna and flora, like  “horned sea lemons with lacy gills unfurled, porcelain incrustations of spiral tube worms” or maidenhair ferns "black-stemmed with leaves like green teardrops, the nasturtiums hanging in tangles with their crisp, wet nasturtium scent, the rocks scrolled with liverwort." Tallent also has a penchant for self-consciously literary physical descriptions like the "two alluvial hollows" that are Jacob's hips, or Martin’s "arteries snaking the great trunk of his neck like cables," that Turtle observes as she stands by his side at a gravesite.

Worse yet are repetitive descriptions of his characters' actions, as in Martin's "raking the pads of his fingers across his stubble" that occurs twice in the space of 10 pages. In yet another of these tics, on no less than seven occasions, Tallent describes a morning ritual in which Turtle tosses her father a bottle of beer, which he then slams open on the edge of the kitchen counter, while she consumes a raw egg. Anticipating the charge that observations like these are nitpicking, such literary tics are, to the contrary, intrusive enough to jar the reader awake from what the novelist John Gardner described as the "vivid and continuous dream" that is characteristic of the best fiction.

In MY ABSOLUTE DARLING, Gabriel Tallent demonstrates true storytelling talent. With a young writer of his gifts, one can only wish him a long and productive literary career. If he's able to temper his exuberance with a measure of self-restraint, it will be one that holds in it the potential for greatness.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 8, 2017

My Absolute Darling
by Gabriel Tallent

  • Publication Date: August 29, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0735211175
  • ISBN-13: 9780735211179