Fourteen-year-old Turtle Alveston lives with her father, Martin, in an isolated, decrepit house in Mendocino, Calif. Her mother drowned long ago, probably a suicide. For breakfast, Martin has a bottle of beer, which he opens with his teeth, and Turtle downs a raw egg right from the shell. At night, they clean their guns together — a survivalist, Martin taught her to shoot when she was 6 — before he rapes her. Sometimes, the sadist invents new entertainments, like forcing Turtle to do chin-ups with the chair kicked out from under her while he holds the lethal point of a hunting knife to her crotch. Not surprisingly, Turtle isn’t prospering in middle school.
The horrors recounted in Gabriel Tallent’s grim and fascinating first novel, “My Absolute Darling,” intensify when a caring teacher suggests therapy. Obviously, Martin, a sociopath who has stockpiled enough supplies to survive an apocalypse, would prefer to avoid a visit from Child Protective Services. And Turtle is determined to compartmentalize the brutality: “There is something in her as hard as the cobbles in the surf and she thinks, there is a part of me that you will never, ever get at.”
Her problems intensify when she falls for a high school boy named Jacob. His cushy life, in a lavish house with loving parents, makes her long for escape. Turtle hopes to prove as tough as her father claims her to be on those special occasions when he isn’t degrading her with misogynistic insults. (“Absolute darling” is one of his nicknames for her.)
“You can’t wear her out,” he says. “It is a thing out of myth, almost. You could hamstring her and drive her way out into the bush and leave her there, and you would come back to find she had taken up with wolves and founded a kingdom.”
Many recent young adult novels have featured adolescent girls who are self-sufficient and wise beyond their years, coming of age in harsh, unforgiving worlds. Girls save entire civilizations or stave off vampires. (“Twilight,” in fact, gets wry product placement in this story.) And young adult novels like to feature thorny social and family issues. Nevertheless, someone should slap an NC-17 label on “My Absolute Darling.” As well as being graphic about its sexual violence — and violence in general — the novel is long, dense, ornate in diction and full of sophisticated literary allusions. “Middlemarch” gets a shout-out, as does“Deliverance.” Martin reads Kant and Hume; there’s a bullied kid named Rilke. The analogues are not recent YA hits but novels like Charles Portis’s “True Grit” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” both of which also feature teenage protagonists.
Part of what makes Turtle so memorable is her passion for the natural world. She takes refuge in the woods and ocean. Descriptions you might skip in another novel here become a mesmerizing, fairy-tale-like dreamscape, hauntingly beautiful and threatening. After being sexually assaulted, Turtle “closes her eyes and feels her soul to be a stalk of pig mint growing in the dark foundation, slithering toward a keyhole of light between the floorboards, greedy and sun-starved.” A churlish reader might complain that this isn’t convincing as a teenager’s perception, and it’s true that Tallent sometimes waxes overweeningly poetic, as here, when he claims to articulate Turtle’s post-rape mood: “She wants in some way to quench her loneliness. She wants to lie here and be wrung clean of all personhood.”
Still, despite occasional missteps, the complexity of the characterization is impressive, especially in how Turtle tries to reconcile her love for her father with her fury at him. Tallent, who is from Mendocino, also paints a saucy portrait of the convergences there: old hippies, farmers, Silicon Valley billionaires and crazy survivalists all bumping into one another at the local espresso bar. It might be one of the only places in the country where a psycho like Martin could blend in with his neighbors — and even have poker buddies.
For the most part, Tallent manages to keep the melo- out of his drama. I could have done without quite so many animals killed in quite such coldblooded ways — does Turtle really have to snack on live scorpions? — although maybe that is to be expected given the number of guns on the wall (and knives in the drawer). But “My Absolute Darling” is a novel that readers will gulp down, gasping.
For all its bleakness, the story does have some fine lighter touches. Jacob and his best friend, the duo who introduce Turtle to normal, goofy stoner life, serve as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this tragedy. Their friendship as warm and wisecracking nerds allows Tallent to insert a contrasting voice into the tale and hints at a different direction that we might see in future works from this prodigiously talented new writer.
Lisa Zeidner’s most recent novel is “Love Bomb.” She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Rutgers University at Camden.
On Sept. 16 at 1 p.m., Gabriel Tallent will be at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington.
By Gabriel Tallent
Riverhead. 432 pp. $27