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My Absolute Darling is a cathartic book about abuse that manages not to feel exploitative

My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent Riverhead Books
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

My Absolute Darling is not an easy book to read, nor is it always a pleasant book. It’s bleak and sad, and even the dog dies.

What it is instead is an immensely cathartic book.

A debut novel by Gabriel Tallent, My Absolute Darling centers on 14-year-old Turtle Alveston, a tough-as-nails outdoorsy kid who is forever obsessively cleaning her gun in her house in North California. In a nice subtle touch, only the narrator and Turtle herself call her Turtle. Her teachers call her Julia, and her father calls her kibble. Her mother is dead, and as the book begins, she has no friends.

Turtle’s entire world is her father, Martin, whom she worships and adores and also, in a deep and buried part of herself, hates and fears. Martin is a paranoid environmentalist with an apocalyptic streak, raising Turtle in a decrepit and rotting mansion in the middle of the Northern California backcountry so that she’ll learn how to live off the land, because none of the skills she could pick up in town will be worthwhile once the world ends.

Raising Turtle in isolation also allows Martin to tighten his jealously possessive hold on her. Martin is abusive, prone to setting Turtle elaborate tests and punishing her violently when she fails, and then assuring her that she is his “absolute darling.” At night, he drags her off the plywood pallet and sleeping bag where she sleeps and into his own enormous redwood bed, where he molests her.

In the back of her mind Turtle knows that there is something terribly wrong with Martin and the way he treats her, but in the front of her mind she repeats a mantra that “he loves me more than anyone in the world has ever loved anyone.” My Absolute Darling is told in a tight third person, locked in on Turtle’s thoughts, and it is appropriately oppressive to be inside her mind. Her inner monologue is intertwined with the one Martin has taught her, the one that has her thinking a constant stream of “you bitch, you whore, you illiterate slit” about herself and every other woman she sees, so that it becomes difficult to see how much of her psyche is authentically hers and how much of it is Martin.

Into this bleak landscape come two bumbling, ridiculous teenage boys. Their names are Jacob and Brett, and their cheerful, pop culture-inflected, untraumatized banter is a welcome relief both to the reader and to Turtle, who finds herself fascinated by them. They’re just as fascinated by Turtle as she is with them, and grow to be endearingly in awe of her apocalypse-ready outdoor skills:

“We think she might be a ninja.”

“She denies this.”

“But of course, she’d have to deny it.”

“If she said yes, she was a ninja, we’d know she wasn’t.”

“I wouldn’t describe the ninja theory as definitive, but it’s a live possibility.”

“Anyway, she led us out of the valley of the shadow.”

“She can see in the dark.”

“She can walk across water.”

“She has her own pace. She just stops and she looks and she stands there looking and you’re all, like, ‘What are you looking at?’ but she just keeps looking and you’re like, ‘Um, aren’t you bored yet?’ But that’s because she’s a Zen master.”

After so many pages of Turtle’s Martin-inflected self-hatred, it’s a sheer joy to find people appreciating Turtle for the delightful little badass she is. Turtle finds their appreciation pretty delightful, too — but Martin is sure to learn about what’s happening, and he won’t be such a fan.

What’s most impressive about My Absolute Darling is how carefully it handles its bleakness. Many abuse narratives are ostensibly about how terrible abuse is, but at the same time they invite their readers to wallow, to luxuriate in the idea of a young girl’s broken and violated body. My Absolute Darling is aware of what’s happening to Turtle’s body, but it remains firmly interior, focusing its attention on her warped and damaged psyche. The result is that it feels less exploitative than it does honest.

And as Turtle gradually comes to terms with her secret hatred for Martin, and begins to take steps to separate herself from him forever, the outcome feels earned — and cathartic and spine-tingling as hell.