Book review

There’s a reason (think John Green meets Stephen King) this debut novel is all the rage in the West

In ‘My Absolute Darling’ Gabriel Tallent successfully combines the trauma of child abuse with teenage romance.

It was undoubtedly the debut of the year. A New York Times bestseller. A novel praised by none other than Stephen King with these words: “The word ‘masterpiece’ has been cheapened by too many blurbs, but My Absolute Darling absolutely is one.” And Bitch Media has headlined its review of Gabriel Tallent’s first novel “Male Authors Are Still Profiting From Women’s Pain”.

In other words, everyone, but everyone, in the book business in America is talking about My Absolute Darling, a novel depicting 14-year-old Turtle Alveston’s survival in extreme conditions. Turtle lives in coastal Mendocino, California with her father Martin – an abusive, alcoholic nutcase who stocks up on canned food and gun supplies, believing that the world might end any day.

Turtle is forced to eat raw eggs, the occasional scorpion, and rabbits that she hunts. She struggles to keep up in school, knows how to fire a Sig Sauer firearm on target, and is capable of surviving with only her gun in the middle of the forest at night in pouring rain. She can even come back alive after being washed up on isolated rocks with the tide. In short, Turtle Alveston can survive both man and nature. It is the “how she does it” that this book goes into.

Those horrible things

The first chapter begins with ominous details of Turtle’s living conditions in the house where raccoons lick the dishes clean and her father flips out at her for getting spellings wrong in her homework. Tallent pulls us straight into the uncomfortable with a seemingly mundane day of breakfast, walking to catch the school bus, middle-school vocabulary classes, and the principal’s meeting with the parent. Along the way, he shatters the illusion that being part of a small town community can mean any kind of safe space. It is a jungle out there, at home and in Turtle’s mind, and there is no way to escape it.

“…I thought at least you could give me this, you could at least do that, but the truth is that you give me nothing, she thinks, pulling up her pants and shashaying them on to her hips and holstering the gun as Martin watches her dress, and she thinks, go ahead and watch, asshole. I don’t know how to get away, and I don’t know if I can get away, so we will find out, I guess. Go ahead and watch, she thinks, because there is something wrong with me that I would take this risk that I would allow you to do this to me.”

Much of the novel is dedicated to Turtle’s inner thoughts, running in the form of monologues, and this is where we get the measure of psychological trauma that a survivor of sexual abuse goes through. Turtle’s conversations with herself are repetitive in which her mind switches between reminding herself how much her daddy loves her and how she can escape or kill him. This is where the book differs from other stories of sexual abuse and survival.

Tallent shows us the psychological underpinnings of Turtle’s mind, which she has trained to believe that she loves her father and is equally responsible for her father’s actions. She feels guilty every time Martin hurts her, thinking that it is because she provoked him through something she did.

The intriguing aspect of Tallent’s writing is that it is thoroughly goosebump-inducing, and capable of taking your heartbeat up a notch. The prose makes you sick in the stomach out of curiosity, fear and excitement about what is happening on the page. You will not have a moment’s peace until the scene has ended, and the aftereffect is in the form of unpleasant dreams.

John Green meets Stephen King

Turtle’s life changes when she encounters two high school boys, Jacob and Brett, who are lost in the forest while camping. She helps them survive the night and get home safely, and for this, they are in complete awe of her. For the first time, she likes a boy and knows how dangerous an act this could be. But it is here with the boys’ entry that lightness also enters the prose. The book shifts gears from being a psychological thriller to a young adult novel, which makes for a welcome change.

When the boys are lost in the woods, they come across a cottage and consider going in. This is the conversation they have:

“Brett says, ‘Dude, dude, what if you go in there – and there’s just, like one deformed albino child on a rocking chair with a banjo?’

Jacob says, ‘And he takes us prisoner and makes us read Finnegans Wake to his peyote plants?’

Brett says, ‘You can’t tell anyone that my mom made us do that. You can’t.’

Jacob says, ‘Why Finnegans Wake, do you think? Why not Ulysses? Actually, why not just read The Odyssey? Or – or The Brothers Karamazov?’

‘Because, dude – you read fucked-up Russian bullshit to your peyote plants, you’re gonna have a bad time.’

‘Okay, so: To the Lighthouse. Or – you know what? – people die in subordinate clauses in that book. Maybe DH Lawrence? For a passionate, make-love-to-the-gamekeeper kind of high.’

‘Dude, with your voice you are like, look at all these books I’ve read but with your eyes you are like, help me.’”

Tallent fuses the two genres – YA novel and psychological thriller – and moves back and forth between them. I could swear I was watching a dark, twisted Gilmore Girls episode towards the end, where all hell breaks loose where but at a high school party. On one page you find yourself laughing at a Jacob-Brett conversation, or read about a lovely moment between Jacob and Turtle straight out of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars where the cigarette is a metaphor, and the next thing you know you’re in Stephen King’s short story Survivor Type in which a surgeon stuck on an island eats his own limbs to survive.

Even the cluelessness doesn’t kill it

A debut novel that took Tallent eight years to write, the book speaks of his command over prose, his ability to make you cringe and yet be curious as if it were a slasher film whose gory scenes you cannot watch but cannot look away from either. And yet, the book has its minute loose ends, certain spaces of cluelessness, a lack of knowledge for the reader. Perhaps this is because it is told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl who herself doesn’t understand why her father does what he does. But that cluelessness becomes a little frustrating after a point. However, by the time this feeling surfaces, the reader is so into the book that it does not matter terrible.

This is a not a once in a lifetime kind of book. But if you’re feeling a bit numb and want to go through a magnitude of emotions, from pure horror through laugh-out-loud humour to spine-chilling sensations, this might be it. For these reasons alone, Tallent could end up being the next-generation thriller writer we’ve been waiting for.

My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent, 4th Estate.

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.