Turtle Alveston, at the age of 14, the heroine of My Absolute Darling, one of the most talked-about novels of the year, eats raw eggs for breakfast, cracking them into her open mouth. She sleeps on the floor, the skins and roast rabbits over a fire of dry grass and is an expert shot, to spend their afternoons meticulously cleaning guns. She even snacks on the scorpions. The turtle is “a person of great strength and personal resources and courage” of his creator, of 30 years, Gabriel Tallent tells me. But he adds that she is “a girl who is”lost”.
Turtle lives in a ramshackle house on the north coast of California, with Martin, his survival father; the windows are bricked up, kitchen pots are left to be licked clean by raccoons. There are supplies of dried food in the basement – the humanity is “little by little, dilapidated … shitting in your bathwater”, Martin tells his daughter – and the gravel drive is full of bullet casings. The turtle is the father charismatic, macho and handsome, an eloquent self-taught philosopher with a deep sense of nature: Tallent he describes to me as “visionary”. He is sometimes a “tender” father and, certainly, a loving. It is also a monster, who verbally, physically and sexually abused Turtle, and insists on exerting total control over her. “You are mine”, he growls. She adores him and hates him and knows that she needs to escape.
In the excitement that has built around My Absolute Darling, an advertisement not requested by Stephen King has played a crucial role. He has called Tallent debut novel a “masterpiece” in order to compete with To Kill a Mockingbird and Catch-22. Their editors have breathlessly proclaimed a “literary and commercial marvel”. The beauty of Tallent writing has been praised, but it has been done of the novel\’s action-packed novel of suspense of the plot. The pages turn quickly, and the reader deeply wants Tortoise to prevail. When it was published last week, a study concluded: “For once, believe the hype.”
Tallent\’s own absorption with the landscape of Mendocino County, where the novel is set, comes across vividly as the Turtle of the catches of eel in the rock pools and explore barefoot in a desert of bishop pine and huckleberry. Equally significant is the author of the evident intention of writing a powerful female character. “I wanted her to moderation, and dignity to burn through the page,” he said. “I wanted to write it so that the damage that we do to women it seems that, as it seems to me, is real and urgent and intolerable.” The two issues, he says, were always linked in his mind: we harm “the most important things for us” – as Martin does Turtle, as humanity makes to the environment – “because we don\’t see that really are not our own.”
You are going bushwacking, I\’d like to take a copy of the Iliad, in which I wanted to memorize in order to impress the young women
Tallent grew up near Mendocino, whose reputation as a hippy retreat was established in the 1960s and 70s. His parents separated when he was five years old, and was raised by his mother, the writer Elizabeth Tallent, and his wife, Gloria Rogers. (His father, a carpenter, now lives in Illinois.) Albion Ridge, her home for years, had a “strong back-to-the-land lesbian movement … it was a little before my time, but the ideas were still very much in the air.” The high school attended was small and progressive: each morning, the 70 or so students of the hands, and did a breathing meditation, before discussing the issues of the day.
“My parents modeled precocity intellectual,” Tallent says. “Elizabeth is hyper-eloquent,” on issues of feminism, “Gloria is a wonderful person, with a great sense of justice; she is a very honest person”. He was an only child in a house saturated with the literature, the ideas, the debates”; the family was going to read Dickens aloud for the night, and her cats were named after feminist icons (“Cixous wander in and out”). Tallent loved to go “bushwacking along the ridge, and I would like to have a copy of the Iliad, which – and this shows what an odd child I was – I very much wanted to memorize in order to impress young women.” He laughs: “it has never been developed that way.”
Julia \’Butterfly\’ Hill … the activist, who lived in a tree. Photo: Shaun Walker/The Associated Press
His was a pen of children: “Any time I had was spent in the creeks, along banks, in search of salamanders. The woods were of this incredible place that gave excitement and adventure around every turn.” As one of their school projects, interviewed a local activist who, for more than 700 days spent in the copa de Luna, an ancient redwood tree. “I have spoken about global warming without ceasing, and have led to the sense of alarm with me … Being passionate about the ideals always opens you up to criticism from the more tired of the people, so that one is a bit awkward to believe in the justice and goodness and stuff, but I did much and I still do.”
My Absolute Darling, which took eight years to write, which started as an “ideas-driven book, about the ecological disaster … But I turned out not to be … didactic”. At the university of Oregon, Tallent started a work of fiction set in the Pacific Northwest with a great cast of characters, including the drug of farmers, anarchists and the dropout rate. He investigated local plants – knowledge that adds a specificity to the exuberance of its nature writing, and firearms. After college, when I was working as a waiter in a restaurant, who “spent a great part” of what money they had on guns, and a lot of time shooting: “I felt that I needed to vet every moment in the book in a critical manner and do not rely on unproven assumptions.”
I don\’t want to rely on unproven assumptions … I spent a huge chunk of money on firearms
At a certain point, the careful Tallent realized that his best writing focused on the character of the Turtle. “We need more books like this one,” he says, “about the survivors and the abuse”. (His novel is bound to draw comparisons with Only Yanagihara recent A Little bit of Life, which also represents a childhood of sexual assault and torture.)
My Absolute Darling – the title comes from one of Martin endearments – is, at times, disturbing, explicit and hard to read. In one scene, her father agrees to an exhausted Turtle to do pull-ups from a beam while holding a knife between his legs. The rape scenes are described graphically. The turtle has internalized from his father, the misogyny and cruelty, and on one occasion she was injured a 10-year-old girl, which Martin brings home. Tallent is sensitive to any suggestion that the novel turns into voyeurism or exploitation. “I felt that it was written through a hole of privilege and could not be arrogant. Of course, I was aware of … In the university I studied Pamela, perhaps the first in English of the novel, about a young woman who suffers a prolonged imprisonment, and allegations that the book took advantage of this young woman, the experience for the audience of the excitation were rampant.”
I wanted Turtle to be a real character, not a symbol or a poster child. “There is a reluctance to show her doing anything wrong”, Tallent, he insists, but if you delete any aspect of your experience, which is “shit … I took the risk.”
In the midst of the adulation, to the early criticisms of the book have accused Tallent to do exactly what he set out to do – write the Turtle as a stereotype, with his \’playful\’ physical \’and the \’crooked\’ in the mouth, a teenage girl that is attractive, but believes that she is ugly. She struggles in school, but it is in that instant bright once she puts her mind to it. When she is distraught, she chews her knuckles. A critic of the New York Times, has argued that it is “almost devoid of interiority … What remains of us is an action hero, a kind of male fantasy of the figure of Mad Max: Fury Road”. The high school children that the Turtle makes friends themselves joke that she is a ninja, “the chainsaw-wielding, shotgun-toting, Zen buddhism, once and future queen of post-apocalyptic America”.
As an intense teenager, Tallent not only transcribed by Plato in the dialogues for the fun of it, but it was a pulp fiction addict. He loved the adventure stories “about how to be brave and survive … how to be a good person when the stakes are high and the odds are murderously against them.” This, on one level, is the Tortoise of the story. I wonder if the violent confrontation of the novel was influenced by the film: “I have not seen many movies as a child,” he replied, “I don\’t see many movies now. But I try to be a visual writer, and I wanted to capture the busy-ness of a bad situation.”
My Absolute Beloved by Gabriel Tallent review – a remarkable debut
Tallent is clearly set up for a bad situation: his next book will focus on the trauma and the friendship between the climbers in Utah, where the novelist now lives with his wife. He is a fanatic climber, and gives a terrifying description of a climb, one morning, when their bases were so small that it was “enter” in the air ” and the slowly warming rockface became alive with wasps.
With its distinctive blend of serious purpose and pulse-quickening action – Plato and the pulp of My Absolute Darling is set to ensure the kind of success that is going to change Tallent of life. He is not part of a literary scene, and is willing to point out the hundreds of excellent books that are not lavished with such attention. How to make your climbing friends about your new celebrity status? “You won\’t think I\’m hot shit”, he smiles. “They are very happy, but what they like is getting drunk with me. Not as I\’ve risen in your esteem.”
My Absolute Darling is published by the Fourth power. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330-333 6846.