The heroine of Gabriel Tallent’s explosive first novel, “My Absolute Darling,’’ is a 14-year-old who’s been raised in part by her grandfather, Daniel Alveston, and trained, in a bizarre paramilitary style, by her father, Martin, in the wilds of California’s far-north Mendocino County.
Sometimes called “sweetpea” by her grandfather, she thinks of herself as Turtle. At school, where she performs grudgingly and poorly, she is known by her government name, Julia Alveston. Her father’s pet names for her include “kibble” (as in the dog food) and more sexually abusive epithets — and sometimes, when overwhelmed by his infatuation with his only child, he calls her “my absolute darling.”
Turtle’s mother died, accidentally or not, of drowning before Turtle was old enough to know her, and Martin seems to have transferred his obsession with his lost wife to his daughter, concocting a myth that Turtle was really fathered by a mountain lion that invaded their isolated woodland home. He later tells her a different story in which he considered shooting her as a child — to save her — if he couldn’t get a shot at a wild cat that was stalking her. (“Rather than let that cat open you up.”) Martin also regularly rapes Turtle — one must call it rape even though she brings a strange simulacrum of consensuality to it: thinking “do it, I want you to do it,” and afterward, “He believes her body to be something that he understands, and treacherously it is.”
Turtle has sunk so deep in the world they share that her denial becomes an alternate reality. Her reflex is to wall off anyone who might disrupt her relationship with Martin (with the possible exception of her grandfather). She aggressively fends off the concerns of her teacher Anna.
Martin is obsessed with the collapse of the ecology and some imminent Armageddon, for which he has trained both himself and his daughter. Both are very heavily armed, and thanks to Martin’s training she’s an expert in the use of all this firepower. The remote country house they live in amounts to a separatist camp.
Turtle has survival skills enough that “she could walk into those woods and never be found,” and once in a while she tries it, as a way of testing the elasticity of her bond with Martin. On one walkabout she runs into a couple of boys lost in the woods and helps them through a rainy night in the redwoods.
She comes away with a crush on one of the boys, Jacob, and when Martin finds a T-shirt of Jacob’s she has saved, he beats her with an iron poker. Grandfather Daniel tries to intervene, but dies of a stroke at the dinner table. Martin, having blown up his father’s trailer, abandons Turtle for most of the summer, inadvertently allowing her time to spend with Jacob. Her skills are put to a sterner test when she must rescue herself and the boy after they are washed out to an island by a freak tide (reminiscent of one that might have killed her mother).
Then Martin returns, with a younger girl called Cayenne in tow. In this situation he appears more plainly to the reader, if not entirely to Turtle, as a sadistically abusive pedophile. Trapped in her belief “that whatever harm he might ever have done to you, it was a drop in the ocean of his love,” Turtle can’t easily defend herself against Martin, but she finds she can defend others: Cayenne and especially Jacob, when she learns that Martin may murder him and his family out of jealousy.
What saves this novel from collapsing into the sensationalism of its climax is the richness of the writing and the power of its verisimilitude. Gabriel Tallent is a lapidary realist, exhaustively (and beautifully) describing everything from the structure of a wild-oats seed head to the tidal wave that sweeps Jacob and Turtle out to sea.
The psychology of the characters gets no less attention. Almost against our will, readers are brought to believe that what’s going on between Turtle and Martin is an authentic love affair, however pathological, and to confront the paradox that without Martin’s training, Turtle could never survive his determination to keep her by killing her. Those factors, rendered with absolute conviction, are very, very deeply disturbing. There are many elements of this story we would rather not believe — all so convincingly rendered that we can’t help but believe them.
MY ABSOLUTE DARLING
By Gabriel Tallent
Riverhead, 432 pp., $27Madison Smartt Bell, the author of more than a dozen novels, teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.