Love And Cruelty Are Bound Together In 'My Absolute Darling'

Aug 26, 2017
Originally published on August 26, 2017 1:15 pm

My Absolute Darling is Gabriel Tallent's first novel, and no less than Stephen King has called it a "masterpiece" to rank with To Kill A Mockingbird and Catch-22.

It's the story of a clever, resourceful, and lonely 14-year-old girl named Turtle Alveston. Her mother took her own life when Turtle was a child, and she's grown up in the woods of Mendocino County, Calif., with her father, Martin, who taught her how to hunt, shoot, and survive.

Martin is intelligent and principled — Tallent calls him a "charismatic autodidact" — but also abusive and deranged. He's built his life around his daughter, and that's the problem. But when Turtle meets a couple of friendly teenaged boys out in the woods, she begins to see her life in a new light.


Interview Highlights

On what's going on behind Martin's charismatic facade

Martin is a man who, however smart he is, he's a very damaged, a very hurt person. And this struggle is sometimes characterized by moments of great tenderness with his daughter, but it's also characterized by moments of great cruelty when he does terrible harm to her.

I think that no person is a monolith. And I think that he feels great love for her ... but such is the nature of his wounds that he sort of can't help himself. He's a terribly hurt person, and love, sometimes, in a wounded person, translates to great entitlement and possessiveness, and his inability to see her as anything but an extension of himself.

I tried very hard to write true things about the way that abuse and this kind of sickness creeps into these relationships.

On Turtle's new friends

I think that the boys are transformative to Turtle because they are entirely different from anything she's ever been a part of. Largely, she's felt hostile towards the rest of culture, and to other people, and she has felt herself to be an outsider. And they sort of show her a relationship that's very different to anything she's had before, a very different kind of friendship. And sometimes that's what other people are to us, they show us what we thought about the world isn't necessarily true.

On creating Turtle's story

I began with just a glimmer, a sort of intuition of who this character would be, and I pursued her for draft after draft, looking in each draft for honesty, and for what felt real. Comparing each draft to how a person feels in your life. And I did that until I arrived at the character you see finally on the pages today.

Samantha Balaban and Nicole Beemsterboer produced and edited the audio of this interview. Petra Mayer adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Gabriel Tallent has written his first novel at the age of 30 and no less than Stephen King calls it a masterpiece to rank with "To Kill A Mockingbird" and "Catch-22." "My Absolute Darling" is the story of a clever, resourceful and lonely 14-year-old girl named Turtle Alveston. Her mother took her life when Turtle was a child, and she's grown up in the woods of Mendocino County, Calif., with her father, Martin, who's taught her how to hunt, shoot and survive.

Martin is intelligent and principled, but he's also abusive and deranged. He's built his life around his daughter, and that's the problem. Then Turtle meets a couple of teenage guys in the woods and begins to see her life in a new light. Gabriel Tallent joins us from the studios of member station KUER in Salt Lake City. Thanks so much for being with us.

GABRIEL TALLENT: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: When the book opens, a lot of adults around Turtle at her school are worried about her, aren't they?

TALLENT: Yes. Some of the teachers, some of the people in Turtle's circle are worried at what they see as her withdrawnness and her isolation from her peers and possibly her sense of being distant from other girls her age.

SIMON: They, of course, call her father in for what I sense is not the first conference. He's kind of charming, isn't he?

TALLENT: Yes, he is. I mean, he's a charismatic autodidact, a self-taught philosopher of sorts, who's very persuasive about philosophy and about questions of the human mind. And he's an impressive personality, not just to Turtle but to other people in his life.

SIMON: But something ugly is going on in the family, isn't it?

TALLENT: I would say so, yes.

SIMON: Yeah, well, help us understand that, if you could 'cause these are very difficult sections to read where his abuse of his daughter is described.

TALLENT: So Martin is a man who, however smart he is, he's a very damaged, a very hurt person. And this struggle is characterized sometimes by moments of great tenderness with his daughter. But it is also characterized by moments of great cruelty when he does terrible harm to her.

SIMON: Every morning, he professes his love for his daughter. He says, you saved my life every morning. You get up and out of bed, I hear your little footsteps patting down your stairwell and I think, that's my girl. That's the one I'm living for. How does this man, who professes such love, often in tender and even eloquent words, get love so twisted?

TALLENT: I think that no person is a monolith. And I think that he feels great love for her. And he has moments of seeing clearly how much he loves his daughter and the terrible harm that he has done to her. But such is the nature of his wounds that he sort of can't help himself. He's a terribly hurt person. And love sometimes in a wounded person, translates to great entitlement and possessiveness and his inability to see her as anything but an extension of himself, right?

I was interested in global warming writing this book. And I was interested in why we destroy the things that are most meaningful in our lives. And I think the answer is sometimes because they have such value.

SIMON: Could you read a section for the book from us that we get some idea of the way Martin sees his daughter, Turtle?

TALLENT: OK. He holds her and she stands there, her waist encircled in his embrace. How big you're getting, he says. How strong, my absolute darling, my absolute darling. Yes, she says. Just mine? Just yours, she says. And he crushes the side of his face against her and presses it urgently to her, looks up at her, his arms encircle the small of her back. You promise, he says. I promise, she says. No one else's? No one else's, she says.

SIMON: That's upsetting just to overhear, isn't it?

TALLENT: I tried very hard to write true things about the way that abuse and this kind of sickness creeps into these relationships.

SIMON: Yeah. How does meeting a couple of teenage boys in the woods begin to shake things up for her?

TALLENT: I think that the boys are transformative to Turtle because they are entirely different from anything she's ever been a part of. Like, largely, she has felt hostile towards the rest of culture and to other people. And she has felt herself to be an outsider. And they sort of show her a relationship that is different than anything she's had before, a very different kind of friendship. And sometimes that's what other people are to us.

They show us that what we thought about the world isn't necessarily true.

SIMON: When there's - what I'll just refer to without giving too much away is a kind of a grim, inspiring and harrowing survival story that follows at some point where, to come of age, Turtle both realizes all the survival skills that her father has taught her and also comes to a reckoning with him. Do you create the character and then just let them fly or do you try and smooth the road for them?

TALLENT: That's an excellent question. There's sort of two questions bound up. I sort of create the character and let them fly. But I have to say that creating the character is a lot of work. I began with just a glimmer, a sort of intuition about who this character would be. And I pursued her draft after draft, looking in each draft for honesty and for what felt real, like, comparing each draft to how a person feels in your life.

And I did that until I arrived at the character you see finally on the pages today.

SIMON: Gabriel Tallent, his highly praised new novel "My Absolute Darling." Thanks so much for being with us.

TALLENT: Thanks so much for having me, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.