We are well-served to remind ourselves that humans are predators, monsters with hard leather shoes. But like most things human, our monsters come in a variety of shapes and guises. The phrase “human monster” tends to conjure up serial killers. Hannibal Lecter, for example, or The Prophet from Meg Gardiner’s recent book, Unsub. Alas, you need not be a member of this club to lay claim to the title of monster. With My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent demonstrates that one man, Martin Alveston, with one victim, his daughter Julia, can provide more than enough monster. Tallent writes like an angel, which is to say that he sees the beauty but knows the devil.
My Absolute Darling is set in the forests of Northern California’s Mendocino Coast, and the prose is appropriately lush, rich and dripping. Martin Alveston lives as far away from polite society as he can. He distrusts technology, the modern world, and comfort. He’s well-armed, and he’s taught his ripening daughter well how to use those guns.
Julia, AKA “Kibble” (Martin’s name for her) AKA “Turtle,” is smart. precocious and has been truly twisted into knots. Early on, after pages of gorgeous nature writing and scene setting, those same prose talents are applied to a scene of graphic abuse, as experienced by Turtle. It’s horrifying beyond belief. Consider yourself warned and advised. The writing is powerful and the story is told from Turtle’s perspective. What we see, that Martin does not, is that he has created a hero equal to his evil. As much as we loathe him, we love her.
But that’s not totally true, and here is where Tallent’s talent shows. Martin is prone to rants about Our Modern Life, and Tallent gives him some pretty persuasive arguments. He’s not just evil and twisted, he’s pretty smart. But his daughter is smarter, and she has the advantage as it were, of having been raised by a monster. The dynamic between father and daughter is becoming increasingly unstable. Turtle’s grandfather is still on the scene and on the remote rural property where they live. Turtle herself is in school, barely, where she attracts the attentions of her teachers and fellow students. My Absolute Darling turns out to be a taut bow, ready to fire at the slightest provocation.
The true pleasure of this novel is to experience Tallent’s astonishing prose as he carefully crafts two towering characters in his exquisitely rendered world. Every time Turtle meets a teen friend, picks up a gun, talks to a teacher, is abused by her father (not too often, thankfully), or even just hangs with him in a moment of simulated normalcy, the readers wants to stand up and cheer her on. We become invested in these characters, in this landscape. We want it to break and we want it to work.
My Absolute Darling is a powerhouse. Readers might see Turtle as a nascent superheroine, but she needs no super powers. She (and Gabriel Tallent) will kick your reading ass from here to eternity and back. The deal with monsters is this; make ’em evil, make us hate ’em. Make us believe in them. (All too easy in Martin’s case.) Then introduce us to the human who is their match. In this example, Turtle. The problem for predators is the existence of other predators.
The problem for Gabriel Tallent is that he chose arguably the most difficult and off-putting subject in our culture as the topic of his novel. But in our conversation, we discuss how and why he chose this perspective. I do admit that while I read I had to occasionally remind myself that the setting was California, not Appalachia. Tallent is extremely well-spoken and he took an unusual route in writing the book, which we do discuss. Follow this link to hear our lightning round conversation, or listen below.
Follow this link to listen to our long-form conversation, or perhaps you and your cubicle mates will just listen below to a discussion about human monsters