There may be some relationship parallels with Twilight, but this debut is an absolute triumph.
To dispel any notion that the two books are in the same league: the Guardian was tipping My Absolute Darling, Tallent’s debut, for the Man Booker Prize long list.
But consider the parallels. Tallent’s teen heroine, Turtle, like Twilight’s Bella, is pale, gangly and socially alien. Both revere books, drive a clapped-out truck, isolate themselves at school and live with their dad. They are each torn between two men: one is an all-consuming abuser, and the other – in both books called Jacob – radiates warmth and gentleness. Their stories play out in small towns, forests and cold, rocky beaches of northern California.
But where Bella is all moony victimhood, Turtle, the darling of this title, kicks absolute ass. Shootin’, swimmin’, scowlin’ – in one particularly visceral scene, she eats a scorpion, just to know that she can.
Self-sufficient to a fault, she is reminiscent of Keri Hulme’s Kerewin in that other bleak tale of abuse, love and wildness, The Bone People. In short, Turtle is the anti-Bella.
Lest you think this bow is drawn too long, Tallent has a painfully vulnerable peripheral character absorbed in Twilight and its sequel, New Moon, in the run-up to the climax of his book.
And nothing is here by accident. Tallent’s every word fits the next and fits the whole, like a gorgeous 100,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. It is difficult to imagine the story different in any way.
It is a hard and harrowing narrative – the author doesn’t flinch, but the reader surely will. Turtle is raped, manipulated and terribly scared and has been since she was a child. “If you ever get out of this,” she reminds herself, “it will be because you paid attention and moved carefully and did everything well.”
Tallent grew up bushwhacking in Mendocino, where Turtle lives. He uses the area’s weeds, soil and sea to soften the edges and weave together his scenes of hurt and neglect.
Almost every page creeps with pig mint, horsetails, mushrooms, eelgrass or California poppies. Wild roses climb around Turtle’s bedroom window. For a time, she subsists on kelp and nettle tea. Nasturtiums – peppery, tenacious, “hanging in tangles with their crisp, wet nasturtium scent” – pop up at significant moments.
Stepping carefully here to avoid spoilers, I can say that by the end of the book, it’s clear all these weeds are no accident.
And the writing? For reviews, I like to fold pages to mark passages of particular beauty. My copy of this book is now flared and fat with dog-ears, and when I scan each page for the sentence that grabbed me, I’m often unable to pick it from the rest.
Here, then, is a random sentence from a page I didn’t bother to mark: “The bus creaks to a stop and, with an exhausted gasp and the thwacking of rubber skirts, throws open its doors.”
It’s all like that, every bit of it. An absolute triumph.
My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent (Fourth Estate/HarperCollins, $39.99)
This article was first published in the August 26, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.