Does ‘My Absolute Darling’ Deserve the Hype?

Two writers discuss Gabriel Tallent’s highly-praised debut novel about an abused teenage girl

“Double Take” is our literary criticism series wherein two readers tackle a highly-anticipated book’s innermost themes, successes, failures, trappings, and surprises. In this edition, Michele Filgate and Bradley Sides discuss Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling.

Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel My Absolute Darling arrives on a wave of early praise. It’s an intense and harrowing story, following fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston and her fight to survive the dangerous world and her abusive father. As you’ll see in Michele and Bradley’s conversation, My Absolute Darling is a kind of rare, brilliant book that manages the difficult task of emotionally breaking its readers before, somehow, finding a way to give them hope.

Bradley Sides: To me, the single greatest aspect of My Absolute Darling is the fourteen-year-old protagonist, Turtle Alveston. Truthfully, she’s a character I don’t think I’ll ever forget. She’s tough. She’s fierce. And she works so, so hard to overcome every hardship that comes her way. At such a young age, she endures all forms of abuse, and, somehow, she still has the strength to continue.

“Survivor” is the term I think best describes Turtle. Yes, she physically survives abuse from her father, but she also survives other things. She survives her poverty. She survives her problems with school. She survives lengthy (and dangerous) stays in the woods. I mean, she’s a person who just survives. I kept comparing Turtle’s inherent drive to survive to Mireille’s in Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, which is the book I thought of the most as I was reading My Absolute Darling.

To begin, I’m curious to know what you think of Turtle — and of her determination to survive.

Michele Filgate: I fell in love with this book because of two things: the gorgeous prose and Turtle. She’s one of those characters who will always stay with me. The number one word I’d use to describe her is “resilient.” Her father is an awful human being, and the scenes where he’s abusive are horrifying and sadly all too real. The way she internalizes what happens to her makes sense.

This is a survival story, and it works because the reader can’t help but root for Turtle. She’s not an easy character, by any means, but it’s her complexity that makes her feel like a living, breathing person. And you’re right: My Absolute Darling isn’t just about abuse. It’s also a coming of age story. Were there any moments where you felt frustrated with her?

She’s not an easy character, by any means, but it’s her complexity that makes her feel like a living, breathing person.

BS: You are totally right about Turtle not being “an easy character.” There are two moments, especially, where that sentiment rings truest to me.

The first one is early on in the book, and it involves her treatment of a bullied classmate named Rilke, who the girls’ teacher describes as being a “know-it-all” and “kind of a kiss-up.” We know that Turtle’s background isn’t good. As we’ve stated, her father abuses her. Plus, she doesn’t have friends or meaningful ways in which she can find any real type of escape. Rilke’s life doesn’t seem quite as rough as Turtle’s for what we know, but she still has her own struggles. When Anna, the teacher, reaches out to Turtle and asks her to befriend Rilke, I had so much hope that we would see Turtle develop some kind of meaningful relationship with someone, but she doesn’t. At least not yet — and not with Rilke. While on the school bus, Turtle verbally and viciously attacks Rilke. What’s worse, I think, is Turtle’s reaction. She sees Rilke’s pain. She sees what she’s done to her. But she allows the moment to burn. Rilke “wraps her hands around herself, pulling her red coat up onto her shoulders, and she bends over her book, opening her mouth as if to say something, and not coming up with anything to say.” It gutted me to see that kind of shared pain.

Turtle’s most disappointing moment, at least from my perspective, is when she basically abandons Rosy, Grandpa’s old, dying dog. After he dies, Turtle does show some general affection toward Rosy. She offers to get food for her. She pets her. And these things are certainly commendable, but she doesn’t do enough. When Rosy is dying in the field near Grandpa’ trailer, Turtle touches the dog. She feels the quickened heartbeats. Ravens are overhead. She knows that Rosy’s death is near, but she leaves her. Tallent writes of Turtle, “She thinks, that old dog, she’ll be okay there, for now.” When she returns, though, it’s too late. The ravens are feasting upon Rosy.

Turtle has so much strength that I think she takes it for granted. Not everyone — not Rilke, not Rosy — can deal with the kinds of things Turtle might could endure. These two moments are tough to read, but they are necessary for us to understand how intensely hurt she is. It makes her ultimate triumph all the more powerful.

And then there’s Cayenne. What do you think about the way Turtle treats her?

MF: I agree with you — these moments ARE necessary in order to see Turtle as a three-dimensional, all-too-human character. We need to see her failures in order to root for her.

The scene where Turtle meets Cayenne for the first time is devastating. Her father disappears for a long time, and shows back up with a girl who is “nine or ten.” “She has a blocky oval face, a jutting jaw, rounded, clunky cheekbones, Twilight open on her lap. Turtle feels nothing look at the girl. Nothing. It is like the socket where a tooth should be. She thinks, his mistakes are not your mistakes. You will never be the way he is. You will never.” Right away, she attempts to distance herself from the girl. And then Martin has her aim a gun at Cayenne, to shoot at a coin. It’s such a dreadful moment. You know nothing good can come of it.

I won’t ruin it for the reader, but the evolution of Turtle’s relationship with Cayenne is what makes the end of the book even more compelling. Before Cayenne arrives, no one else witnessed the abuse. “It has always been private.” She tries to convince herself that Cayenne doesn’t matter to her, but she does.

Do you think learning to care for Cayenne is what saves Turtle?

BS: You know, I’ve asked myself that question before, and I’m still not totally sure how I should answer it.

On one hand, it’s certainly fair to argue that learning to care for Cayenne is what saves Turtle. If Cayenne didn’t appear, I doubt Turtle would ever have that moment where she would have to take on a nurturing role. Sure, she has other moments where she could care for others, especially with Rilke and Rosy, but with Cayenne it’s different. This is a young girl who shares the same broken walls that she does. They hear one another’s cries. They understand the hurt that surrounds them in ways that, perhaps, no one else can. It seems like there would nearly have to be some kind of innate protective and loving bond the girls would form that would lead to some kind of healing.

At the same time, I question my reasoning because the emotional (and probably selfish) part of me wants Turtle to be the one who saves Turtle. I love the recurring motif of her cleaning her gun. She works on polishing that thing from the beginning up until the novel’s end. It’s a slow process, and she savors it. She’s readying herself. Maybe Cayenne’s arrival is just a coincidence. Turtle could already be nearing her moment of salvation.

What do you think?

MF: I also love the idea of Turtle saving herself, but I think Cayenne is the motivation she needs to get to that point. She finally has empathy for someone else, or maybe it’s that she allows herself to feel empathetic for the first time. She knows why Cayenne allows Martin to have any power over her: “He can be pretty fucking persuasive. And what if she came from somewhere that no one cared about her, and all of a sudden there’s Martin. What would you do, if you’d never had that in your life? If you were a child. You’d do a lot, she thinks. You’d put up with a lot. Just for that attention. Just to be close to that big, towering, sometimes generous, sometimes terrifying mind.” And just after she says that to herself, she convinces herself she doesn’t need to help Cayenne, because she “has her own problems.”

So why do you think Turtle eventually changes her mind? She was raised by a man who told her that you can’t count on anyone else to help you. “…you’re on your fucking own,” he tells her. But she’s no longer on her own, once Cayenne is in the picture. And that means she has a responsibility outside of herself. Is that what Turtle needs in order to care for herself? To care for someone else, too?

BS: I think Turtle changes her mind because Cayenne’s love tames her in ways that no one else’s can.

Cayenne doesn’t really push Turtle — at least not too much. And when she does, it’s not aggressively or with selfish intent. Cayenne seems to respect Turtle’s introverted personality. She doesn’t corner her. She doesn’t constantly question her motives or challenge her intelligence. She allows Turtle to be Turtle.

This approach works, too. Slowly, Turtle warms up to Cayenne. I love this scene near the end of the book: “Turtle holds the girl in her arms, and the girl is small, with slender shins and small bony feet, and her hair is rough and coarse on Turtle’s cheek. It sticks to Turtle’s lips and the girl reaches up and puts her arms around Turtle’s neck and Turtle says nothing, but holds her, and holding her, she thinks, this is a thing I can take care of, and if I couldn’t show the girl any love, I could show her care, I can do that much, maybe. I am not like him, and I can take care of things and can take care of her, too, maybe, even if I don’t know if it’s real and even if I don’t mean it more than that, I can salvage something maybe by just doing that…” Here, Turtle changes. She becomes the nurturer that Cayenne needs and, I think, that she, herself, needs. This embrace leads Turtle to a renewed sense of purpose. She’s fighting for Cayenne — and for herself.

We’ve talked about Turtle’s relationships with people; let’s talk about the one she has with the natural world, which is nearly as important in this particularly novel. We could probably even say that the world Turtle inhabits is, itself, a character, right?

Tallent describes this California world as having lush forests and various bodies of fresh water. But it’s also wild and ripe with overgrowth: “The old house hunkers on its hill, all peeling white paint, bay windows, and spindled wooden railing overgrown with climbing roses and poison oak.” The description of the back deck captures this complex setting even better: “The back door off the kitchen has no lock, only holes for the knob and deadlock, and Martin kicks it open and steps out onto the unfinished back deck, the unboarded joists alive with fence lizards and twined with blackberries through which rise horsetails and pig mint, soft with its strange peach fuzz and sour reek.”

The thing that’s so interesting is that Turtle seems most comfortable out in the wild. Let’s talk about Turtle’s connection to the untamed world.

MF: I love that scene, too. It’s a moment of absolute tenderness. Turtle resolves to never be like Martin. The cycle of abuse is so common, but many people lean on it as an excuse for abusive behavior. It’s not an excuse. There’s no justification for abusing people. And as you say, Turtle changes in this moment. She won’t be like him. She refuses.

The landscape is definitely a character in this novel, much like Cormac McCarthy’s writing. It makes sense that she’s more comfortable in the wild. When you’re raised in an unstable household, the outdoors seems like a safer place than the confines of the home. It’s very much alive, just like her. We can see that in this passage, for instance. “The tide is out; there is a black expanse of cobbles, and each cobble holds an eye of moonlight, and each looks soft and wet like flesh, stretched out before her in a multitude. The beach draws breath like a living thing, and she can smell the muddy stink of the estuary.”

The landscape is definitely a character in this novel, much like Cormac McCarthy’s writing.

I know (because it’s in his author bio) that Gabriel Tallent spent time “leading youth trail crews in the backcountry of the Pacific Northwest.” It’s clear that his deep knowledge of nature comes from his time on the trails.

I want to talk about Turtle’s name. A turtle carries its home on its own back. Do you think of Turtle in that way, too? As self-reliant and carrying a protective shell around with her?

BS: I really like what you just said: “A turtle carries its home on its own back.” It’s such a true statement. Turtle totally does this. She’s a hunter, and, when she’s ready, she becomes a nurturer. Without her, I don’t think Cayenne would make it, and, truthfully, I don’t think Martin would survive either.

One thing I’ve observed about turtles is that they don’t really seem to be social creatures. They are, like you said, “self-reliant.” I think that, too, describes our protagonist here. She’s willing to talk to people — and she does, but she’d rather be by herself and do her own thing.

Turtle owns her name. When Cayenne is first talking to Turtle, Cayenne calls her by her birth name, which is Julie. Turtle hates that name. She says, “It makes me want to puke.” I think that’s one of the best lines of My Absolute Darling. It’s just so Turtle. Cayenne starts talking about how Turtle can’t be Turtle because she’s too pretty, but Turtle quickly informs her that being pretty is something she doesn’t care about. Not. At. All.

I don’t think Tallent could’ve picked a better name for his protagonist. It’s perfect.

I’m glad you mentioned names because I want to know what you think about one of Turtle’s nicknames. I’m talking about “Kibble,” the name Martin calls her. I think I cringed every time he said it. Do you think it’s another way for him to demean her? Or am I being too hard on him? Can anyone be too hard on him?

MF: Ed Yong wrote a wonderful piece for The Atlantic last year called “Why Turtles Evolved Shells: It Wasn’t for Protection.” Apparently the shell’s first purpose wasn’t defense — that came later. “The turtle’s shell, then, is a wonderful example of exaptation — the evolutionary process where a trait evolves for one function and is then co-opted to serve another. They began as digging platforms and then became suits of armor,” Yong says. When I think of Turtle, I imagine her digging her way to freedom. So this name suits her because she’s not just a person who wears a suit of armor. She’s also a person who actively burrows her way out of an extremely difficult situation.

I hate hate hate the fact that Martin nicknames her Kibble. He’s equating his daughter to dog food, as if she was created to be devoured. That couldn’t be further from the truth — but it’s his truth.

There’s no such thing as being too hard on Martin. He deserves our scorn. We can’t make excuses for an abuser. Did you ever feel bad for him?

BS: I don’t feel bad for him. If he did one thing that seemed genuine — for real, just one, I might feel some pity for him, but Martin carries on like he’s living in some utopian fantasy world.

He intimidates everyone around him. He’s crude. He’s a liar. He’s an awful guy.

With Martin, Tallent, I think, has given us one of the great villains of contemporary literature. You mentioned McCarthy earlier. If we take away the (possible) immortality of the Judge from Blood Meridian, I think Martin Alveston is comparable in terms of evilness. There’s some real chill-inducing stuff happening in these pages.

As we begin to close, I just want to say that I hope this book reaches people because it’s an important novel — maybe the most important one of 2017. Turtle’s story needed to be told, and Tallent does it beautifully. This is the kind of book that can change the world, and I sincerely hope it does.

I hope this book reaches people because it’s an important novel — maybe the most important one of 2017.

MF: Blood Meridian is a perfect book.

Martin is the ultimate villain. He’s manipulative and smart and a total creep.

Let’s hope that people don’t steer clear of the book because of the dark subject matter. To anyone who is afraid of reading it because they can’t handle reading about abuse, I would say the same thing I’d say to people who didn’t want to read A Little Life: you’ll miss out on one of the best books of the year. Give this book a try. It might change you. It very likely will.

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