Guest contributor: Bill Lundgren

Lundgren’s Lounge: “My Absolute Darling,” by Gabriel Tallent

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns / Reading Under the Influence

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With the arrival of summer comes the inevitable onslaught of summer titles, those books you all MUST read, for your own edification, or for cocktail party chatter or for the simple pleasures of this increasingly arcane act that we call reading. These books arrive on the scene to great trumpet blasts and ubiquitous and rapturous front page reviews… and by the next year they have been largely forgotten, relegated to the remainder shelves or the used book section of the bookstore or most ignominiously, serving duty as a doorstop.

But very, very occasionally a book bursts onto the scene and is anointed as the IT book of the summer season and all the effusive praise and mention of the word ‘masterpiece’ is justified. Such is the case with Gabriel Tallent’s first novel My Absolute Darling. Tallent’s novel introduces us to Turtle Alveston, one of the most singular and unforgettable characters in modern fiction. Turtle is being raised by her father, Martin, on the rugged northern California coast. At 14 she is attending school, but she is fiercely uninterested and disengaged. Isolated from her peers, she spends her time in a natural world that Tallent describes with startlingly original and mesmerizing language. Early on we as readers begin to suspect a darkness at the core of Turtle’s existence that might explain her chosen social isolation. Turtle spends her days rebuffing the interests of her classmates, playing cribbage with her elderly grandfather who lives just down the road and being subjected to the rantings of her survivalist father, whose eloquence often lapses into violence, both verbal and sexual.

Tallent depicts the complex dynamics of an abusive relationship with unblinking, searing honesty. Despite the horror of her situation Turtle loves her father, though she understands that he is a monster. One night while wandering through the forest, Turtle chances upon two boys, Jacob and Brett, who are hopelessly lost. After she leads them to safety a friendship begins, allowing Turtle to think of her world and her life outside of the isolation that has suffocated her since the death of her mother years before. But as she muses about what might develop between her and Jacob, “…she thinks, you’re forgetting what your life is, Turtle, and you can’t forget that and you have to stay close to what is real, because if you ever get out of this it will be because you paid attention and moved carefully and did everything well.”

Tallent marvelously shows the indomitability of Turtle’s spirit and the self-loathing that is the inevitable product of victimhood. Her teacher, Anna, tells her, “…I think you come to school and you think you’re bad at school and so you are bad at school. But you’re not bad at school.” Anna reaches out impulsively and grabs Turtle’s hands. Holding them she says, “Just try. Just try.”

As Martin begins to suspect the budding relationship between Turtle and her new friends, he becomes increasingly violent and enraged, constantly reminding Turtle that “You are mine. I created you.” As a reader you will fall in love with Turtle and your heart will break as you witness her struggles. Tallent has accomplished the rare feat of leading us into an almost unbearable darkness while also taking our breath away with the translucent beauty of his writing.

Did I mention that Turtle is an expert with guns of all kinds? As she wrestles with how she might extricate herself from her father, a series of riveting adventures ensue that you will find nearly impossible to stop reading without learning what happens to this lovely girl, who has captured your  heart in a way that might seem impossible for a fictional creation.

Bill Lundgren is a voracious reader who writes book reviews in hopes of sharing his enthusiasms with fellow readers. He lives in Portland, Maine with a wild menagerie of dogs and cats and birds and his wife Carol, the veterinarian. He teaches writing and literature at Southern Maine Community College.

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