Review published on July 30, 2018.
This is a powerful debut, deserving of the praise heaped on the novel. Tallent has engaged with a difficult subject sensitively, but full on. He has created a heart stopping thriller and avoided cliché or trivialising the sexual and physical abuse of a minor. Reading My Absolute Darling is at times a brutal experience because this is real life but the story is a compulsive drama. The heart of the novel is Julia ‘Turtle’ Alveston, the young girl with a spirit and bravery that allows you believe in her future.
My Absolute Darling tells the kind of story you’d like to think of as a singularity but in your heart you know it’s not uncommon. You will blanche at the violence in young Julia Alveston’s life. The constant danger she faces and her developing sense of just how bad things are in her life will touch you deeply. The fear this induces is a large part of the thrill. What should be a rites of passage tale of a young girl and her intuitive understanding the adult world is a dark tale of abuse and neglect. From the very beginning of the novel we are aware that Julia, known as Turtle to her father and Sweetpea to her grandpa, has had an abnormal childhood. She can shoot any gun you put in her hand because she’s been practising since she was six, she’s self sufficient, a mini-survivalist (moulded by her father). Little details trigger alarm bells that haunt the narrative.
Turtle is 14 years old, like any teenage girl she’s unhappy with the way she looks, the way she feels. Her grandfather is on at her father, Martin, about the way the child is being raised. She sleeps in a military sleeping bag and is being trained to take her lumps, no complaints, no whining. For Martin, his daughter is his, for life, he ‘made her’. The key word in My Absolute Darling is absolute, for Martin, Turtle is his forever. Martin relies on no one, he drinks, just beer mostly, but his mood can turn on a sixpence. The school are worried about Julia, she struggles in class and doesn’t have any friends, this will only get worse as she goes up to high school. Martin refuses a counsellor for Turtle. He sexually abuses his daughter, she thinks he loves her, but she is beginning to notice how this makes her feel. She is more vulnerable than ever because Martin does not like the new streak of independence in his daughter. An argument with her father, over a knife her grandpa gave her, leads to a harrowing scene where he forces Turtle to hang from the rafter, if she drops the knife between her legs will… you get the picture. He is cruel and manipulative.
Turtle helps two boys, Jacob and Brett, find their way out of the forest one day, she likes Jacob, they could be friends, but her Dad won’t like it. Turtle defends her dad to Jacob but he shows her a different kind of world, a freer experience. She slowly begins to accept that her father may hurt her badly. Her reluctance, her loyalty, her self doubt are the result of years of manipulation by her abuser. Turtle is alone but it need not be that way.
“Her moments of happiness occur right at the margin of the unbearable. She knows it will not last and she thinks, you can never forget this Turtle, what it was like here without him [Martin]. You have to hold tight onto it, how good it is.”
My Absolute Darling is touching and terrifying. Much of Turtle’s self discovery, boys and feelings and change, are the experience of any child her age but they come within the context of danger and abuse. Martin is a man placing his own sexual desire/needs above the welfare of his child and that can never be called love, twisted or otherwise, Turtle has to realise that for herself. As an analysis of manipulation and abuse My Absolute Darling is spot on, as a thriller – terrifyingly good!
Paul Burke 4/5
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Fourth Estate 9780008185244 pbk Jul 2018