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“You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace,” Martin Alveston tells his daughter Turtle. It’s heavy advice to give a 14-year-old, but she receives it willingly. First presented with a gun at the age of six, Turtle is now better at shooting than she is at school vocabulary tests. She can light fires and drive a truck. She can even, when commanded by her father, perform a makeshift finger amputation on a terrified visitor.
My Absolute Darling is the much feted debut by the young American writer Gabriel Tallent. At its heart is the intense, warped love between Turtle and Martin. He’s taught her everything he knows, giving her the skills that they both know will enable her to destroy him. In the meantime, he rules through a mixture of fear and love. She is compliant when night after night he appears in her bedroom to have sex with her, sharing his mixture of pride and shame. “In the waiting she by turns wants and does not want it. His touch brings her skin to life, and she holds it all within the private theatre of her mind, where anything is permitted, their two shadows cast across the sheet and knit together.” This is abuse, and Tallent doesn’t shy away from the fact, but he is also insistent on naming their love as love. This is partly down to the lyricism of his prose. It is additionally because Martin, though a controlling monster who’s trapped Turtle in a frightening folie à deux, has created a world that remains enticing for her, primarily because of their shared closeness to nature.
Tallent grew up near Mendocino and the magnificent, inhospitable landscape of northern California is itself a character here. Turtle has been initiated into her relationship with the woods and beaches that surround their home by Martin, but that environment now feels more consistently nurturing than her relationship with him. Indeed, she feels guilty when she abandons him to retreat into the wilderness, and it’s here that she meets Jacob, the boy who allows her to glimpse a new, more ordinary world and to admit to herself the unhealthiness of her own.
From the point that Jacob and his friend Brett appear on the scene, the novel becomes a fast-paced adventure story, which explains why it has a puff from Stephen King, who has called it a masterpiece. This phase of the story is too heavily plotted for my liking, because when you’re anxiously turning the pages wondering what will happen next there’s less time to appreciate the detail along the way, and it’s detail that Tallent is so good at. When he slows down, there’s an excitement in smaller moments: the act of catching an eel can take on all the drama of a chase. Encouraged and instructed by Turtle, Jacob lifts a reluctant fish out of a rock pool “and it squirts out of his fist and he goes down hard on his knees, lunging, lifting it and again losing it” as it disappears beneath a stone.
What we are witnessing here is an encounter with nature in which Turtle’s world is pitted against Jacob’s. She has been both seduced and repelled by the consumerism of his luxurious home. “Where are your tools?” she asks, perplexed by people who simply hire a tradesman when something breaks. Now she is teaching him to inhabit her world, and it’s a lesson that almost kills them both, washing them up on a kind of magical island where they rely on her skills to survive. It’s not hard to see why Turtle can’t quite bring herself to forsake her home for Jacob’s. In his saner moments, Martin is a kind of eco-warrior. “The natural world is going to die, and we’re going to let it die, and there’s no way we can save it,” he laments.
At its most abstract, the battle between Martin and Jacob, conducted through Turtle, is a philosophical one. The “absolute” of the book’s title is literal. “You have always been loved, deeply, absolutely,” Martin tells Turtle. He is an absolutist who lives in a Manichean world in which even target practice is a battle for the soul. The indoctrinated Turtle half shares his view, while secretly aware of its dangers. Pushed to the brink, she wonders, will Martin step back? She cannot be sure.
Though Martin loves Turtle, it’s a form of possessive love (“you are mine”) that denies her individuality. He has distorted the philosophy he reads to create a world view that denies theory of mind: he insists it’s only by inflicting pain that we believe in the possibility of the consciousness of others.
Jacob, by contrast, offers a form of love that allows Turtle to exist fully as an independent entity. This is why she feels so released by her first contact with him. All along she has known that “her mind cannot be taken by force, she is a person like [Martin], but she is not him, nor is she just a part of him”. Jacob provides proof of this. It is this growing subjectivity that Martin most fears. “There is a terrible inwardness to you,” he tells her. And the reader is made to understand that it’s only by cultivating this inwardness that she will survive. “I hate him for something, something he does, he goes too far, and I hate him, but I am unsure in my hatred; guilty and self-doubting and hating myself almost too much to hold it against him.”
At the end of this strange and remarkable book, civilisation triumphs. When we last see her, physically and spiritually broken, all Turtle can do is plant a garden in the town. This is a world beyond philosophy in which nourishment comes from nameable and tangible things. Her plants repeatedly die, but she tries again. “She just wants to build a garden and water it and have everything grow and everything stay alive and she does not want to feel besieged.”
• Lara Feigel is the author of The Bitter Taste of Victory: Life, Love and Art in the Ruins of the Reich (Bloomsbury).
• My Absolute Darling is published by Fourth Estate. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
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