My Absolute Darling
(2017), a novel by American author Gabriel Tallent, follows Julia “Turtle” Alveston as she learns to see her father, Martin, for the abusive psychopath he is. Tallent’s debut novel, My Absolute Darling
was warmly received by critics, although most reviewers noted that Martin’s abusive parenting makes the novel “difficult to read” (NPR
). Several reviewers singled out the character of Turtle as an original and rounded female protagonist, although the New York Times
found her “an action hero…of a wearying sort, because Turtle has clearly been designed to be empowering.”
The novel opens in Mendocino, California, where fourteen-year-old Turtle is trying to master her school vocabulary homework. Her father, Martin, frustrated by her progress, puts a gun in front of her and calls her a “b—” when she refuses to take a shot at a playing card. Bit-by-bit, we learn that Martin is a survivalist, who has trained Turtle from a young age to survive after the ecological disaster he believes is just around the corner. A sharpshooter, she can survive by herself in the wilderness.
She is also hurting and alone: Martin abuses Turtle, psychologically and sexually. Never having known anything different, Turtle convinces herself that Martin loves her, although sometimes she has to jump through some challenging logical hoops to explain why he treats her as badly as he does. "I need you to be hard on me, because I am no good for myself," she says to him in her head, "and you make me do what I want to do but cannot do for myself, but still, but still — you are sometimes not careful; there is something in you, something less than careful, something almost — I don't know, I am not sure, but I know it's there."
Martin warns her not to talk to people about their life together, in case she is taken away from him. When people—like Turtle’s teacher—inquire after her, Martin threatens to kill them and her. So Turtle keeps to herself. She has no friends. Her mother died years ago under mysterious circumstances. Besides her father, the only person she talks to is her grandfather, Daniel.
Daniel sometimes tries to convince Martin that the way he is raising Turtle is harmful, but Martin ignores him. One day, Daniel spots bruises on Turtle’s legs and realizes that Martin beats her. He confronts Martin, intending to rescue Turtle, but the confrontation is so heated that it brings on a fatal stroke in the older man.
Turtle begins to resist Martin’s sexual abuse by running away. On one such occasion, she encounters two older boys, Brett and Jacob, who have gotten lost in the woods while trying to find a campsite. Turtle is a little afraid of the boys, but she offers to help them find their way. She camps overnight with them and feels she has made her first friends.
Struggling to cope with the death of his father, one day, Martin disappears, leaving Turtle to survive alone for three months. Turtle seizes her opportunity to spend more time with Brett and Jacob, developing a crush on Jacob. One day, she and Jacob go eel fishing at Buckhorn Cove; they are swept out to sea. Stranded offshore, they are able to survive only due to Turtle’s survival skills. When they get back to land, Jacob tries to get Turtle to understand that her father abuses her. She refuses to accept it, telling Jacob that he doesn’t understand her way of life.
Martin returns with a ten-year-old girl, Cayenne, in tow. He tells Turtle that he has rescued Cayenne from abuse, and he tries to pit the two girls against one another for his affections. Despite Martin’s best efforts, however, Turtle and Cayenne become friends.
One night, Martin comes to Turtle’s room to rape her. Turtle has started her period and fears pregnancy, so she refuses him by loading her gun as he enters the room.
Later that night, she hears Martin taking Cayenne to his bedroom. She decides that she must prevent him from raping Cayenne at all costs, so she shoots the lock from his door with her shotgun and threatens Martin at gunpoint. Unafraid, Martin brushes the gun aside and begins choking Turtle. She manages to escape with Cayenne, taking refuge at Jacob’s house, but she knows Martin will be close behind them.
Martin arrives armed, and he and Turtle battle it out in a gunfight while Jacob protects Cayenne. Martin shoots Turtle three times, but Turtle manages to kill him.
The novel ends with Turtle living in the home of her former teacher—the only adult who attempted to investigate her family life. She has taken up gardening, and slowly she is beginning the long process of healing from the years of traumatic abuse.