‘An extraordinary debut… a lesson in how these things should be done.’
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Reviewed by Matthew G. Rees
Accepted wisdom has it that young authors rarely produce really good novels.
Paul Auster has said the reason for this is relatively simple: a lack of life experience – what poet Ted Hughes described as his ‘only capital’.
Gabriel Tallent (a name that might have come from the pages of Martin Amis) has perhaps given a lesson in how these things ought to be done. And he has done so at the age of thirty.
Tallent’s novel My Absolute Darling, a worthy contender for the Dylan Thomas Prize, has been hailed a masterpiece by Stephen King. Plaudits have come thick and fast. My copy is taped over with the latest – in a strap of hi-viz yellow, presumably so that the volume won’t be missed on the stands.
The story’s central character is 14-year-old Julia ‘Turtle’ Alveston, a teen of whom it might be said that she is some young woman.
Like it or not, one of the defining facts about Turtle Alveston is that – a lot of the time – she carries a gun and fires it… very well. She can scout, track and is pretty effective with a knife. To strip off and dive in the ocean to capture a huge crab is nothing to her; likewise the business of harvesting mussels from a rock with a blade between her teeth.
But this novel, set in coastal northern California, isn’t the celebration of any dream. Quite the reverse. This is the California Nightmare. And the bogeyman is Turtle’s own father.
The genuinely disturbing Martin Alveston presides over a hillside fruit farm gone to seed. He is a militiaman, a survivalist, an isolationist (of the extreme kind) who abuses his daughter horrifically. Everyone seems to recognise his danger, but to be powerless to act against it. For menace he is reminiscent of Harry Powell in Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel The Night of the Hunter. (Robert Mitchum played the character in a memorable screen adaptation.)
And there are complicating factors which make Alveston all the more unsettling.
He has a mind (albeit gone dangerously awry) of seeming genuine intelligence. Reading matter on his kitchen table includes 18th century philosophy. Connected with that is an apparently sincere concern for Nature. Finally – at least for some – there’s the matter of his charisma, his sexual magnetism. Alvestone is a big, powerful redwood of a man, an obsessive psychopath with a seeming hatred of women. (He speaks of a spider as ‘that poisonous bitch Virginia Woolf’.) And yet one of Turtle’s schoolmates finds his ponytailed figure ‘cool’, and one former admirer tells Turtle (with a seeming nostalgic glow): ‘… your father was one of the handsomest men I ever knew. Still is, I bet.’
In part, this is the intelligence, the challenge, of this book. It is difficult, it is shocking. It is, at times, throat-grabbing. It does not exist to be ‘enjoyed’.
The mysteriously widowed Alveston’s view of Turtle is made plain in three words: ‘You are mine.’ However, his daughter begins to look beyond him and their once productive, now ramshackle, farm.
When Turtle rescues two teenage boys lost in the backwoods a relationship seems likely with one of them. After a night of flight from her father Turtle is reunited with Alveston. His abuse of her and their strange, complicated interaction resumes. All indications are that this already very dark story can only grow darker. A final face-off between Turtle and Alveston appears inevitable.
Cutting across the novel, in welcome fashion at times, comes some rather more harmless California craziness. The mother of one of the lost boys Turtle saves is seated naked in a spa, replete with hot tubs and glass pyramids, when Turtle is introduced to her. The woman continues a conversation with Turtle from her chair while nude (to the embarrassment of her son).
But this is not, nor is meant to be, an easy read. Routine and detailed mention of firearms – Turtle’s proficiency with guns (insisted upon by her father) – will trouble (and doubtless confirm the worst fears of) some.
And there are big questions about the environment: dying bees, trees, the protection of water, the eradication of bears, elk, the depletion of salmon. Awkwardly, concern about these issues is voiced most strongly by Martin Alveston (never mind that he has let his own farm run to ruin).
Yet, Gabriel Tallent stresses, Alveston does not speak for his community, or even his family. Turtle’s grandfather disapproves of her gun. (She props a rifle in his trailer when she visits to play cards.) ‘This is our town. This is your town. The people here are your people. And you’re toting that thing around.’
Any review which concentrates solely on the politics and plot of this novel without mentioning its language is in serious default. For Tallent’s descriptions are the blazing beauty of this book. Again and again he is on target. A knife being sharpened on a grindstone sends out not just sparks, but ‘a rooster tail’ of them. A storm causes grasses and wild oats to ‘nod’ in the falling rain. Our attention is drawn not just to the stones of a creek, but the smell that they possess when wet. A rabbit shot by Turtle is not merely warm in her hands (as perhaps would be the case with most writers) but ‘a bare skim of soft fur over the coupled bones, articulated and sinewy, sawing back and forth in her hand.’ When her fingertips are wet they are ‘turned to raisins’. We encounter not the sole of her foot but something that is ‘contoured like a streambed’.
This is how Tallent describes the floor of woods that Turtle passes through:
‘Water runnels, tan-coloured with tannins, wind down between the knotty fern rhizomes, cutting dollhouse waterfalls, the soil spangled with something golden but not gold, tiny wafery minerals that circle the tiny catch pools, reflecting what light there is. The flooding washes millipedes out from beneath the logs, some trick of the current sorting dozens of them onto muddy washes so that they lay stacked together, nearly all curled up, blue and yellow and glossy black.’
This precise, deft, exciting writing is the hallmark of the book: accounts of the calibres, bolt-carriers, firing pins of guns jostling with forensic specificity about plants, birds and other wildlife.
In conclusion, it should be said that this is a novel which not only has highly skilful writing but what might be called heft. It has knowledge, weight, depth, seriousness, power.
Tallent acknowledges the help of others – experts in the fields of botany, phenology, medicine, education and wilderness. Having as a mother Elizabeth Tallent, writer and academic, must have been useful, too. But none of that should be seen as lessening his achievement.
I’m inclined to row back from King’s word ‘masterpiece’. Alveston’s awful sexual abuse of his daughter seemed dreadfully probable from the earliest pages. It also perhaps had the effect of boxing the novel in rather too quickly. Storylines about bitchy schoolgirls and dances seemed familiar. Occasionally a name or similar – ‘Slaughterhouse Gulch’ – seemed an easy option, though I accept such places can exist. (I recall, as a newspaper reporter, one murder victim’s body being found near a location grimly named Dead Woman’s Ditch.)
Now and again I found the tone a touch preachy: a conversation between two teens lost in the woods about ‘objectifying’ rang less than true: a shame because the dialogue in this novel – and there’s plenty – is, for the most part, one of its strengths. A dinner table confrontation between Alveston and his father, who has seen bruising on Turtle’s body, is electric. And there are others, just as effective.
An extraordinary debut. It re-writes the rules.
My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is published in hardback by 4th Estate, price £12.99