One hundred pages into ‘My Absolute Darling,’ it was already the best book I’ve read this year. Like many others, I picked up this first-time novelist’s work only because Stephen King called it a masterpiece. Mr. King admitted feeling green because (his words) he could never have written anything so good. The book is a masterpiece: You will marvel at the writer’s gift for making you eagerly turn pages so that you can keep up with a story rooted in the disgusting.
This is a human horror story. It is about a fourteen-year-old girl who learns to cope with her sexually and physically abusive father. The book’s beauty and substance come from the writer’s presentation of people, places and emotions. His descriptions compel a deliberate pace so that you don’t dare miss Mr. Tallent’s blue-black narrative of a horrific man doing horrific things, of a girl torn between loyalty and hate.
Most of the characters have teeth showing signs of rot, keep handguns and are prone to anger or to haste. They demonstrate dangerous forms of poor judgment. The father is poetically inclined, steeped in classic philosophy and literature, menacing and creatively evil. He hints that he has wealth. He expresses affection for his firearms and the sense of control they give. You would believe it if he told you he had won his fortune at Russian roulette. His daughter, Turtle, is blessed with orderly curiosity, a persistent sense of purpose and insight into the human condition. Only eight lines of dialogue by an incoming major character is enough for her (and the reader) to see that the newbie is guided by naivete, decency and an irrational need to rescue others. Turtle is lonely, has no friends and, she concludes, logically, that the incoming character would be a perfect companion, except that his life has been so fucking normal. Such episodes make it clear that Turtle’s worldview and her self-image were formed while she was in her father’s pants pocket, pressed against something unclean. The result is a character most readers will desperately want to separate from her self-loathing.
The father-daughter connection shocks because it smells of smegma and the black powder from a shotgun shell. You see the development of a remarkable young woman who begins her life as an abused and dependent child and you are likely to feel wiser for the opportunity to have done so. You are led into greater compassion for those who have survived trauma. The girl’s thoughts, easily read by her father, paint a picture of a character whose spine is made of steel that was long ago twisted under acetylene heat. She struggles to adapt her gifts and strengths to the grotesque posture she knows she will keep for her lifetime. Her conclusion is one that is simultaneously satisfying and ugly.
Buy it in hard copy, not in electronic format. You’ll want this book on your shelf for years to come.
Sample Grab of Text, taken from a scene where Turtle wonders whether her father’s recent absence means he has abandoned her: “Her moments of happiness occur right at the margin of the unbearable. She knows it will not last and she thinks, you can never forget, Turtle, what it was like, here, without him. You have to hold tight on to it, how good it is. Remember the way everything felt clean, and good. There was no rottenness in any of it. But also she thinks, how hard. Nothing is as difficult as a sustained and unremitting contact with your own mind.”