“Then he raises the knife and lays the blade up between her legs, stands scowling up at her. He says, ‘Just hang in there’. He presses up with the knife and says ‘upsy daisy’. Turtle does a pull up, places her chin on the splintery bean and hangs whilst Martin stands below her, his face stripped of all warmth and kindness, seeming fixed in some reverie of hatred. The knife bites into the blue denim of her jeans and Turtle feels the cold steel through her panties”.
My Absolute Darling is the debut novel by Gabriel Tallent. Set in California, the novel narrates and explores the relationship of Martin and his teenage daughter, Turtle. Martin is a self proclaimed survivalist and has led a life, which in his mind, will prepare him for a post apocalyptic world and has also provided his daughter with the same skill sets. He has breakfast with her, walks her to the school bus and despite their strained relationship, he sometimes joins Turtle when she visits her grandfather. Martin also rapes his daughter, night after night. He rules the relationship through dominating strokes of affection and fear. The arrival of the turning point in Turtle’s life is when she meets Jacob. Jacob’s family conventions are far more functional that Turtle’s. Through him she gets glimpses of a different form of family love, affection and security.
Tallent’s writing is direct, bold and ruthless. He certainly does not shy away from depicting the abuse that is an everyday routine for Turtle, he explores this relationship as one of love between both of the characters. What made the novel good on a literary pillar, was the characterisation of both, Martin and Turtle, presenting the reader with three dimensional characters. A father, a dominating monster exerting his control through physical, sexual, emotional abuse but also showing elements of shame and guilt. There is a daughter who has been conditioned to feel “empty” during the abuse, however, has feelings of extreme love for her father and a fixed delusion that nobody cares for her more than he does.
I shall not delve into the synopsis and outcome of the novel, for this prose is not entirely about the outcome for me. It is about the importance of boldly speaking about a subject that is more pertinent now than ever – about the abuse of vulnerable children. One can read endless articles, studies and statistics with regards to abuse, however, I find that prose has the power to evoke emotion on a deeper level. There were countless moments as I sat horrified reading the pages before me, on absolute edge, of what gruesome monstrosity will greet me as I turn the page.
As I browsed various pages talking about this book, I came across an interesting point of view as expressed on the Bitch Media website:
“The book fails to make the reader feel Turtle’s sense of conflict as she’s repeatedly raped by her father while at times feeling actively drawn to him; instead, the scenes serve only to violate both Turtle and the reader”.
I am not sure that as readers, whom I hope would have at least a basic understanding of power dynamics in abuse, should feel the sense of conflict. Rather, it is important to have an understanding of the underlying cause of the conflict. The recipient of this abuse is a child, who has been groomed to understand that the only person on her side is her father, who has raised her, taught her and through whom, she is alive. She has not had any other role models in life or people whom she is allowed to have other relationships with. She has grown up in a misogynistic environment and inherently embraced the trait.
Despite the hopelessness in the situation and plot, Tallent draws our attention to some slivers of hope and highlights the importance of certain people. One group of such people include teachers, in this case, Anna. She correctly identifies the “misogyny, watchfulness and isolation” are the triad often found in abuse victims. She delivers well in the remits of her role in her persistence of providing for and supporting Turtle as her teacher.
In conclusion, I cannot claim the book to be a literary masterpiece, it frankly, is not. However, it is an important book. It attempts to glimpse into the minds of the abuser and the abused. It makes you uncomfortable, it revolts you, it makes you cringe…it personifies, through good characterisation, the dismal situation of thousands of helpless children across the globe. For that only, I would pick it up and give it a read.