“We recommend the book – with reservations” – My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

madgtTurtle lives with her dad, Martin, in a small house up in the hills of Mendocino, California. She’s fourteen, struggles at school, can handle herself with a gun, hunts, knows how to live off the landscape, doesn’t have m/any friends. Oh, and she’s engaged in a relationship with her father. There’s no way to really lessen the impact of that. We follow her as she struggles at school, plays cribbage with her granddad, wanders the woods, and, er, has sex with her dad – and very quickly we see that the sex is perhaps the least disturbing part of their relationship. Which, in itself is a strange thing to write.

Tallent is a writer, in some respects, in the vein of David Vann, in that he is adept at bringing the natural world to life in a vivid, original and refreshing way. There are sections of My Absolute Darling that read like Walden. And yet the relationship between Turtle and Martin is never very far away. Martin is a complex individual. Undoubtedly he loves his daughter. She is his ‘absolute darling’, after all. He’s also keen to ensure she is tough enough for the world and so gives her a hard time – again, there are a number of uncomfortable scenes in My Absolute Darling where Turtle is made to do things (push ups, shooting a coin) that, in themselves, are lunatic but are poised, always, on the lip of something far worse. And eventually, you know, you get the far worse too.

But Martin, as we say, is complex. He is clever for one thing, studies global warming, is passionate about the environment, thinks the human race is pissing the world away. He also has an odd relationship with his father such that Martin can’t help but give Turtle’s grandfather a talking to when he is drunk whilst babysitting. As a reader you think, that’s fair enough, you’re right to shout if someone is not behaving responsibly – but you’re sleeping with your daughter. On the great scale of cosmic crimes, mild drunkenness is outweighed by incest. But not in Martin’s mind because Martin loves her. There are times when he admits, obliquely to how bad he is, how wrong he is, but there are also times, more frequent times, when his possessiveness gets the better of him. And at those times… well, let’s just say he might get carried away and hurt someone.

The main cut and thrust of the book centres on a friendship between Turtle and two boys almost her own age (I say the main cut and thrust but I should add, My Absolute Darling feels composed of episodes, you read an episode, it runs its course, you read another episode, an important detail or two is added to the previous episode, and on it goes, time passes and the effect of accumulating episodes imposes itself without quite making a standard narrative): she watches them from a distance, she gradually makes her presence felt, an unusual friendship sparks up – and then, you know, Martin. So many roads in My Absolute Darling end in, you know, Martin moments. You really don’t want to talk too much about them because (a) they’re disturbing (and if you’re a gentle sort who thinks a novel about incest sounds a bit much for you, My Absolute Darling probably isn’t for you) and (b) they have a certain power that is best unveiled as you make your way through the book (see also Mick Kitson’s Sal).

Perhaps Tallent’s greatest achievement here, beyond the writing itself, which at times is very, very good, is to create a relationship that you want to dismiss just on the basis of the utter inhuman wrongness of it – but you can’t quite. And the reason you can’t quite is because you inhabit Turtle and you see that she loves her dad even as she hates her dad. That struggle very much fuels the climax of the book. If there wasn’t conflict, you’d just hate Martin and it would be a lesser book. But Martin is a charismatic monster and Tallent has fashioned a considerate and able heroine in Turtle. Is it the masterpiece that certain people would have you think it? A Catch 22 or a To Kill a Mockingbird for our time? Not quite. Not really. Is it a swamp gothic in the vein of Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend? We think so. And we recommend the book – with reservations.

Any Cop?: It’s certainly a bold debut and we read compulsively wanting to know what happens next, even as it left something of a bad taste in the mouth.

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