By Joe Donovan
The appearance of a handgun on the second page of Gabriel Tallent’s stunning debut novel, My Absolute Darling, will cause any reader to think: well, this can’t end well. Chekhov’s well-known rule of fiction writing that says a gun that appears in the first act must eventually be fired becomes an obvious focal point for Tallent’s contemplative and heart-wrenching story. But the novel, set in 2017, complicates this theory, or at least suggest that symbols of violence are much more ambiguous, more complicated, than simply the image of a handgun.
Midway through the book, a character spouts off a fact about gun control: “you are nine times more likely to be shot by a family member” he says, “than by intruder,” and — given the nonstop chaos of this book — this fact is almost nonsensical. My Absolute Darling complicates this fact about gun violence most specifically in the domain of family. Take Martin Alveston, for example, who is completely rotten — more lethal than a loaded weapon — especially as the father of Turtle, a 14-year-old girl who is entirely friendless and unable to pass an eighth-grade vocabulary test.
Martin is struggling to raise Turtle, who is on the cusp of adolescence and quickly growing beyond the dimensions of her father’s singular world. In a morose way, this book is about parenting. It asks: what does it mean to protect your children? What traits and flaws do our children inherit? Can we make ourselves to be different from our parents, despite so many shared experiences?
The story takes on three generations of Alvestons, all of whom have proclivity to guns and violence. The focus, however, is on Turtle, the youngest, and her refusal to be anything like her father or grandfather. For instance, Turtle runs away early in the book and makes friends with high school freshmen Jacob and Brett. The boys could be described as the exact opposite of Turtle. They spend their time cracking jokes, eating spray cans of easy cheese, and debating everything from the virtues of reading Finnegan’s Wake to whether they would date a blind girl. A friendship forms, despite the odds and intimidation of Turtle’s father, which provides the novel’s core tension.
For all the humor of Jacob and Brett, the novel’s backdrop is the Alvestons’ unforgiving and abusive household. The boys’ easy middle class ways and politically correct concerns provide a stark contrast to the hostility of Turtle’s living conditions. When Turtle returns from the woods, she must face the wrath of her abusive father, which includes several disturbing sexual abuse scenes.
We learn early on that Martin regularly rapes Turtle. But the account of rape is not so straight-forward. Turtle is certainly a victim, but she’s also a fierce survivor. The book succeeds in these moments because Tallent gives access to Turtle’s thoughts. We see her fighting against Martin, refusing to give herself fully to him. And since Turtle is forced to give part of herself to Martin, fighting means not explaining her thoughts or feelings. This form of resistance gives Turtle power in these scenes, which often fast forward through the actual act and linger in the moment after, when Turtle is reeling from the appalling incident:
She feels gutted, with nothing inside of her and nothing to say, cannot think anything, cannot feel anything. If there is sorrow insider of her, she can’t tell. She feels like something has been pulled out of her guts, roots and all, some alder tree, and where it was before, a nauseous emptiness, but that is all she can feel no sorrow, nothing. She would be capable of terrible harm, if she only wanted. She could do anything and there is no limit to the hurt she could do, only now, she wants to close her eyes and run her mind around that emptiness like running your tongue over the socket of a pulled tooth.
Her resistance to Martin is best understood as distance. As she builds a friendship with Jacob, she also grows distant from her father. Midway through the book, Turtle finally grapples with the sadness of her father’s life and her power over him. It’s a discovery which, Tallent seems to suggest, is animated by her new friends.
Turtle’s character is the most compelling part of this winning debut novel because she is so different from her father. Her fondness for Jacob feels miraculous given the conditions of her life. Turtle knows she’s stronger than Martin, which comes not so much a revelation but instead as a kind of fear, an uneasy sense that shit will go down because Turtle is different.
Still, the mood of My Absolute Darling is one of wonder. Turtle wonders how she ended up this way. This is ultimately a story about surviving an abusive parent, and it’s convincing because it thoroughly investigates how violence is a result of Martin’s grim worldview. He lashes out against Turtle because he is scared. At one point, Martin recalls a memory from Turtle’s childhood when she was hunted down by a mountain lion in her Mendocino California back yard.
I knelt at the edge of the porch and I found you in the scope and I put the reticule right on you. At first, I thought that I could catch him right before he was on you. And then I thought I’d kill you myself rather than let the cat have you.
The passage works so well to explain how violence, though a profoundly imperfect solution, seems the only appropriate one to Martin. In his mind, violence is the only way to prevent the world from harming his daughter. It’s a severely deranged solution, sure, but it’s an explanation that surfaces in Martin when you least expect it, and one that is thoroughly explored by Tallent.
Can Turtle end up in a better place than her father? How can a child that has been a victim of such brutal, sustained abuse go on to live a productive life? The book doesn’t have answers to these questions, but provides much to consider about our own families and the traits we’ve inherited.