GABRIEL TALLENT’S My Absolute Darling
Fourteen-year-old Turtle and her father, Martin, live in Mendocino, California, a coastal town of naturalists, old hippies, and wealthy transplants from Silicon Valley. Turtle’s mother died years ago under murky circumstances; father and daughter have been alone ever since. Martin is concerned about global warming and the coming end of the world. His fears are such that he has trained Turtle — for whom his nickname is “kibble” — to use a gun, administer first aid, and endure such tests of strength as hanging by her fingers from a ceiling beam while he pokes at her inner thighs with a knife. At night, he enters her room, tosses her gently over his shoulder, and takes her to his bed, where he rapes her. “I started writing about a great many more characters and a great many more things. But Turtle was the best, so I let it become her story and shucked away everything else,” said Gabriel Tallent, the author of
My Absolute Darling (Riverhead Books), a debut novel that is receiving tremendous critical buzz from outlets such as The New York Times and National Public Radio. Tallent, who grew up in Mendocino and now lives in Salt Lake City, was born in Santa Fe. When he was a child, his mother worked at Collected Works Bookstore. He returns to Collected Works to read from My Absolute Darling on Thursday, Sept. 14.
Tallent set out to write about the heart in conflict with itself, with an additional theme of global warming. “Sometimes, something is so important to us that we think of it as an extension of ourselves — we’re unable to see its independent and important reality. That’s an issue with global warming, and it’s an issue sometimes with abuse.” Turtle, he said, has been on a project of self-discovery and self-determination for some time before the story opens. When she meets Jacob and Brett, two boys around her age who are lost in the woods, she is already open to the idea that her life must change.
My Absolute Darling stands up to several interpretations. It is a classic hero’s journey and an edgy coming-of-age tale. It is a tragedy about a charismatic man who could have been a strong force for the environmental movement — if he weren’t one of contemporary literature’s cruelest humans, creating a world of fear for his daughter and keeping her constantly on guard for real and imagined enemies. It is a postapocalyptic young-adult fantasy novel, except that it’s not for kids and it takes place in the present day. It is an incest fairy tale in which the imprisoned princess acts as a brave knight, defying death at many turns in order to save the day.
Mental health professionals would probably consider the magnitude of abuse Turtle undergoes to be unusually severe. And it can be challenging, at turns, to fathom how such a person could survive such trauma on a daily basis. Tallent said Turtle is just a girl trying to find the best path through her life, and that he resists the idea that victims of profound abuse are inherently difficult to accurately portray. He worked painstakingly through years of revision drafts to remove his own judgment from the rendering of his characters, and he hesitates now, after the book’s publication, to assign labels to their struggles. He said that the novel is a