My Ab­so­lute Dar­ling

Gabriel Tal­lent

The Saturday Paper - - Books -

Four­teen-year-old Julie “Tur­tle” Alve­ston lives with her fa­ther, Martin, in ru­ral Cal­i­for­nia, where he trains her in shoot­ing and hunt­ing, and to be dis­trust­ful of any­one out­side the fam­ily. He fears for her fu­ture in a lawless, cat­a­clysmic world he be­lieves is im­mi­nent, and what will hap­pen when peo­ple find out he has been rap­ing her. Her sur­vival­ist up­bring­ing has made Tur­tle phys­i­cally in­domitable and emo­tion­ally stunted. Her iso­la­tion is so en­trenched that she is un­able to sep­a­rate Martin’s pa­ter­nal af­fec­tion from his phys­i­cal, emo­tional and sex­ual abuse. Tur­tle can­not con­nect with other chil­dren –un­til the day she meets Ja­cob, a high-school stu­dent whose friend­ship starts a chain of events that will lead to Tur­tle fight­ing for her life.

At first, this novel could be mis­taken for a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic sur­vival thriller. In some ways it is – although the dystopian hellscape is en­tirely man-made. It has drawn com­par­isons to Hanya Yanag­i­hara’s A Lit­tle Life and C.E. Mor­gan’s The Sport of Kings, paragons of lit­er­ary misery-porn that are put in the shade here. While there are sim­i­lar­i­ties, this is bet­ter, by sev­eral mag­ni­tudes – it will leave a longer­last­ing im­print on the mind.

Stephen King has called Tal­lent’s novel a mas­ter­piece, and it’s paced like King at his very best – the story drawn taut as a gar­rotte, the sort of breath­less, page-turn­ing ten­sion that elides the space between hor­ror, thriller and a truly dis­turb­ing love story. But to cel­e­brate its mas­tery of genre tech­nique risks sidelin­ing its lit­er­ary in­can­des­cence. It com­mands at­ten­tion like an air­port thriller with­out sacrificing any of its so­phis­ti­ca­tion.

From inside Tur­tle’s head, we see the world as she does: a hos­tile, in­dif­fer­ent place where women and girls – in­clud­ing her – are in­fe­rior an­i­mals. The vil­lain in this novel is misog­yny. Men are ei­ther ob­tuse or asi­nine, or in Martin’s case, a bit­ter revenant of a dy­ing mas­culin­ity, chaotic and malev­o­lent. Through the abuse, Tur­tle adores Martin, even as she is sure he will one day kill her. The writ­ing is beau­ti­ful; the ex­po­si­tion of the hu­man con­di­tion, in­de­scrib­ably ugly. The kind of ex­is­ten­tial hor­ror this sum­mons is in­cred­i­ble, and sick­en­ing.

To tackle such ma­te­rial so well and craft a novel of such ragged beauty is as­ton­ish­ing. That it has been pub­lished into our in­tel­lec­tu­ally timid, cen­so­ri­ous lit­er­ary cul­ture even more so, but your reviewer is glad it has been. ZC

4th Es­tate, 432pp, $29.99

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