Fourteen-year-old Turtle has been brainwashed by her father, Martin, to hate herself and the rest of the female sex while he conducts an incestuous relationship with her. To say that love and violence are closely aligned in Turtle’s mind would be an understatement. Yet Turtle has absolute faith in the idea that her father loves her, even as he forces her to do chin-ups by positioning the sharp end of a knife between her thighs as part of his ‘survivalist’ training regime.
Martin has trained Turtle to fire a gun from the age of six, she’s more at home in nature than in the house, and has been struggling at school. Their home is on a hill in northern California but they are not entirely isolated, as Turtle’s grandfather lives nearby. He often tries to intervene to protect Turtle but he has a fractious relationship with his son. A teacher also offers support but Turtle automatically rejects it and many people, both male and female, are reluctant to view Martin as anything other than a ‘charmer’ or a ‘good guy’.
The first indicator of Martin’s skewed perspective of the world comes early on in the first chapter, as he walks Turtle down to the school bus. It’s part of their morning ritual and as Martin looks out over Buckhorn Bay he explains to Turtle how looking at the ocean view before them is meant to ‘be good for the soul’, and then goes on to explain how one day it failed to move him at all, and how that revelation shattered his ability to hold back the darkness that descended on him.
… One day you don’t know what the hell you’re looking at. It’s irreducibly strange and its unlike anything anything except itself and all that brooding was nothing but vanity, every thought you ever had missed the inexplicableness of the thing, the vastness and its uncaring. You’ve been looking at the ocean for years and thought it meant something, and it meant nothing.
The entire novel builds the tension towards the moment that Turtle has a similar revelation about the relationship she has with her father. The turning point for Turtle begins when she stumbles across two teenage boys – Jacob and Brett – who have got lost in the wilderness beyond her home. Through her friendship with these two bantering boys, Turtle discovers that there are other ways to live, other ways to survive, other ways to love as they tease her and welcome her into their lives.
When Martin senses that his daughter is pulling away from his control he goes on the attack to reinforce his sense of ownership over her. She is his ‘whole world’, his ‘absolute darling’, made by him, moulded by him, owned by him. His nickname for her is ‘kibble’, which is a dry feed for animals, so even a term that on the surface appears affectionate is in fact derogatory. One of Martin’s favourite punishments is to make Turtle kneel on a bed of kibble when he feels she has stepped out of line.
Turtle is frequently deemed a ‘bitch’ by Martin and by herself but for different reasons. For Martin the word creates a sense of detachment so he can abuse his daughter and defer the guilt of his actions onto her, for Turtle it’s a method of self-talk that helps her withstand Martin’s onslaught.
The idea of his daughter becoming independent and unpredictable makes Martin lash out viciously with devastating consequences. He bolts, leaving Turtle to deal with strong feelings of misplaced guilt, grief and relief, as she wonders if or when he’ll return.
Even though the pacing and scene setting moves the story along swiftly, I did find myself having to close the book occasionally just to give my visual cortex a break. Tallent does not hold back during scenes of violence and he’s good at building tension through the repetitive rhythm of the family’s rituals, so that the reader’s senses are stretched thin while waiting for the next outburst. Turtle’s resilience despite the physical and emotional battering her body and mind takes often put me in mind of Lisbeth Salander from the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.
Tallent’s descriptive powers are particularly strong when he writes about nature, especially when Turtle and her new friend, Jacob, have to fight for their lives when they are swept away by a strong tidal surge and she learns first-hand just how uncaring the ocean can be. The scenes that follow explore whether or not Turtle is product of her genes or her life experience to date.
To have a chance of survival Turtle has to fight the mental conditioning she has been subjected to all her life from her father. As awareness of her true reality rises, Turtle experiences both love and loathing for Martin, craving his touch while also feeling repelled by it, which is a challenging dynamic of an abusive relationship to depict with authenticity in a novel. I think Tallent conveys the complexity of Turtle’s fight with the self fairly well, particularly in the final chapters.
I wouldn’t class My Absolute Darling as a masterpiece, as there are many other real-life and fictional accounts of abusive relationships that are equal to this novel, and some that explore the emotional impact on a deeper level. The two non-fiction books that I’d recommend reading are Strong at the Broken Places: Overcoming the Trauma of Childhood Abuse by Linda T. Stanford and Breaking Free: Help for survivors of child sexual abuse by Carolyn Ainscough.
That said I do think My Absolute Darling is a great début novel. Tallent is definitely a writer to watch as he has a good sense of pace, a perceptive eye for describing the natural world and relating it to the human experience, and he has created a truly memorable character in Turtle. I think Tallent’s real masterpiece is yet to come.
I bought my copy from Waterstones.
Published by Fourth Estate.