‘The word “masterpiece” has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.’
This fulsome praise is wrapped around the cover of Gabriel Tallent‘s debut novel, and comes from the mouth of no less a literary giant than Stephen King. I’m not sure I can be quite as unequivocal, but there can be no doubt that My Absolute Darling is a dazzling work of fiction, bleak, shocking and portraying a depth of character that is both rare and unsettling.
Turtle Alveston is just 14, friendless and almost feral, living in woods on the wild northern California coast with her abusive father Martin. The house is filled with guns, mould, insects and latent violence. Turtle is regularly raped by Martin, but their unhealthy relationship is nevertheless rooted in a twisted form of love.
The story may be a hard one to read but the poetic lyricism of Tallent’s narrative is spellbinding:
He lays her down, fingertips dimpling her thighs, her ribs opening and closing, each swale shadowed, each ridge immaculate white. She thinks do it, I want you to do it. She lies expecting it at any moment, looking out the window at the small, green, new-forming alder cones and thinking, this is me, her thoughts gelled and bloody marrow within the piping of her hollow thighbones and the coupled, gently curved bones of her forearms. He crouches over her and in husky tones of awe, he says. “Goddamn, kibble, goddamn.”
The unholy equilibrium of their relationship is unbalanced by Turtle happening across a couple of boys from school – Jacob and Brett – and by Martin returning home with an even younger lost soul, Cayenne, whom Martin collected in dubious circumstances at a gas station.
There is a child on the porch, face in her hands, black hair in tangles, matchstick arms tiger-striped with bruises. The girl is nine or ten, maybe seventy pounds. When Martin gets out the truck, the girl looks up and runs to him. He picks her up by the armpits and swings her round, laughing. Then, with his arm around her shoulders, he walks her back to Turtle.
“Kibble,” he says, “this is Cayenne.”
The inevitably violent denouement is dripping with irony. Turtle’s affinity with nature, mental strength and familiarity with guns are inherited from Martin, but they might just ensure her survival.
I hope Hollywood is brave enough to transfer this challenging story to the big screen, in these sexually sensitive times, and I can’t wait to see what Gabriel Tallent chooses to write about in his second novel.