Don’t judge a book by its cover people say. I would add, nor by its reviews, for My Absolute Darling – the story of a survivalist who abuses and berates his fourteen year old daughter, Julia (or Turtle as she is nicknamed) in equal measure, has been praised to the heavens. In particular by Stephen King, who declared it a ‘masterpiece’ comparable to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, after which, the literary world seemingly fell over itself in order to queue up and lavish further glory on this, Gabriel Tallent’s first novel.
That isn’t to say that My Absolute Darling is entirely unworthy of the praise and the hype. But it is flawed and falls far short of being the masterpiece that King seems to think it is.
It’s set in remote, coastal woodlands of northern California, where a verbose survivalist called Martyn lives in a rambling house that has seen better days. Living with Martyn is his gun-savvy, tough, wood-wise daughter and alcoholic father, making My Absolute Daring a tale of simmering hatred, love, jealousy, and sexual violence that occasionally crosses over into actual, physical violence. In the background, nature mirrors real life by being as brutal and indifference to the suffering of the creatures that exist in its world.
At the centre of this world is Turtle, the book’s sullen heroine, who – when not being raped – spends her time cleaning guns, of which she has several, wandering naked through the woods at night, or being subjected to Nietzschean tests of her will and strength by her controlling and Sadean father. Examples include being forced to do pull-ups from a beam in the ceiling while her father holds a razor-sharp knife between her legs, meaning that should she try to lower herself to the ground before the task was completed, she would be impaled on the blade.
On another occasion, in one of the novel’s genuinely tense and gripping scenes, Turtle is coerced into shooting a coin directly out of the fingers of a ten-year old girl who her father has brought home with him. The little girl holds the coin at arm’s length as Turtle finally gives into her father’s wishes and pulls the trigger…
But for all the book’s successes, there are many flaws and appallingly banal sequences, not least in the dialogue spoken by some of the key characters, which not only seem contrived but undermine the many strengths. This is most notable in some of the speeches by Martyn, the abusive father. For example:
“The temperate may rise six degrees in the coming decades, and that’s not just ‘rising temperature’, that’s a cataclysm. You think we can, stop that? People don’t believe in obesity, and that they can see in the fucking mirror. They can’t take care of their own goddamn bodies. How many people because their hearts are grimy with plaque, do you think? A lot. What is it —— seventy percent of all Americans are over-weight? Half of those are obese? And do you think – can this person, this average American, take care of anything? No. Fuck no. So the natural world, which they cannot see for all their roads and gas stations and schools and jails, the fucking natural world, which is more important and more beautiful than anything this average American has ever seen or understood in his whole fucking life, the natural world is going to die, and we’re going to let it die, and there’s no way we can save it. Fuck.”
Martyn continues in this vein for another 200 or so words just in that paragraph and there are several more before he pauses for breath. Yet this environmental ranting is as nothing to that of two teenage boys, Brett and Jacob, from the school year above Turtle, who she encounters camping in the woods near her home on one of her nocturnal wanderings.
“I told Brett the whole story over the phone-he was pissed! He was like, ‘I miss everything!’ – I told him how we were washed out to sea and how it was like making furious love to a clash of orgiastic rhinos in a swimming pool filled with broken glass, and how you made a fire by staring balefully down into the reflective bottom of an aluminium can until your immense force of will was concentrated and magnified by the parabolic mirror into a white-hot spark of pure Turtle rage that could light anything on fire, even the hearts of unwary high schoolers.”
“We could farm mealworms,” Jacob says, warming to the idea, “in our Styrofoam deserts. They can subsist entirely on plastic. I can see us now: farming our mealworms by day, and by night reading Plato aloud to one another beneath the constellations of a foreign sky, accompanied by the vast grind of an entire continent of plastic bottles churning in the current and by the ethereal whisperings of grocery bags saltating across the mounded plastic dunes.”
Teenage dialogue is regarded as literary kryptonite for writers and the interminable eco-twaddle between Jacob and Brett makes me feel that Gabriel Tallent was exposed to a lethal dose around the time that he wrote My Absolute Darling, as it not only destroys the brooding menace of earlier scenes but – in the context of two teenage boys – is not so much Stranger Things but just strange, in that no one speaks like that.
Tallent also sets up interesting subplots early on in the story around Turtle and then just lets them disappear. In one, Anna, her teacher, tries to befriend her by asking her to help – or put in a supportive word – to new girl Rilke who is being bullied. Yet, despite Turtle doing the opposite and briefly being shown joining in with the bullying, this interesting storyline is not developed. Nor, disappointingly, is the relationship with Anna, as the character effectively vanishes after this scene until the end of the novel, when her reappearance seems perfunctory and staged.
Most disappointingly of all is Martyn, the abusive father, as no real attempt is made to explore or really question his behaviour – or, indeed, why he is being so abusive or even what drives him? Turtle’s mother is hinted to have killed herself after discovering that he is abusing their daughter, but there is no timeline of the abuse so it becomes difficult to contextualise it within the story. Nor is Martyn’s violence, or his random acts like arriving home with a ten-year old girl in tow who he later rapes (an act that triggers the book’s climatic ending), really believable. For such a strong, controlling character, he seems almost too out of control.
If anything, My Absolute Darling, reminded me most of another Stephen King endorsed novel, The Fireman by Joe Hill, which was published in 2016. Joe Hill is, ironically, a pseudonym for Joseph Hillstrom King, one of King’s sons. I say this because the The Fireman is also full of lengthy environmental diatribes and politically motivated speeches that, like Brett and Jacob’s eco rants, often seemed more about re-enforcing the author’s prejudices than moving the story forward.
That said, the similarities between the two novels stop there and My Absolute Darling has much to recommend. There’s an interesting, strong heroine in Turtle. She just needs to find some friends who can speak properly.