Narrated by Alex McKenna
August 29, 2017 | Penguin Audio
Literary Fiction | Coming of age
Turtle Alveston, given name Julia, also known as Kibble. At 14, she’s spent most of her life living in isolation in the woods along the Northern California coast with only her tortured, survivalist father Martin to care for her. She roams the woods freely, claiming tide pools, creeks, craggy islands, and the coastline as her playground.
But the outside world confounds her. She refuses to make friends or to ask for help, turning away anyone – teachers, students, administrators – that dare attempt to get to know her.
All this changes one day, as she wanders through the woods and creek beds, and she comes across two lost high school boys, and she’s instantly drawn to one of them. Jacob is funny and smart, lives in a large house with his successful parents and sister, and looks at Turtle like she could do anything. Suddenly Turtle sees her world clearly: her life with Martin is precarious and unsafe, and she starts to imagine escape.
When escape becomes the only answer, Turtle uses the survival skills Martin drilled into her to save not only herself, but others she’s come to care for, maybe even to love.
Before embarking on the My Absolute Darling audio journey (I used Audible for it, spending one of my precious monthly credits), I had read quite a bit about the book. I wasn’t sure if it was the kind of book I wanted to read right at that point in my life.
And then Stephen King said I should give it a try (not in person – duh!), and, since I’ve been on an SK roll, I gave it a try. I’m glad I took the chance.
Before I get into the book, however, I need to talk about Alex McKenna, the narrator of Gabriel Tallent’s novel.
McKenna has a raspy, raw voice, and she’s the perfect choice for this book, in my opinion. When listening to a book, the narrator is so vitally important, and a voice can make or break a book. McKenna’s voice perfectly matched Turtle’s isolated, primitive existence. It’s uncommon raspy timbre enhanced the story for me, adding another layer unavailable with the book. (I don’t say this lightly. I LOVE reading books more than anything. I usually find audiobooks useful as a way to ‘read’ while doing other things, but rarely do I say I listening adds to the book. This is an exception.)
Okay, onto the contents and the story. My Absolute Darling really wasn’t what I would have picked for myself at this point in my life (as you know, it’s been a hard year) if I would have thought beyond an impulse. It’s pretty dark and disturbing at points, and, had I really thought about it, I would have turned away.
But I have to say another thank you to Stephen King. I needed this. I needed dark and disturbing but real and raw. My Absolute Darling is scarier than any horror movies in places, because there is a world out there like Turtle’s, and real people living lives similar to hers.
I’m a firm believer that fiction should sometimes push us out of our comfort zone and take us to other places. Sometimes fiction needs to make us think beyond our contentment.
(But I also believe in feel good fiction more often than not. Go for contentment most of the time, just push yourself outside of it every so often.)
My Absolute Darling definitely took me out of my comfort zone – as a reader, a mother, and a human being. But Gabriel Tallent also told me the story of a true survivor, and that made it all worth it.
Tallent uses bleak, startling language to tell Turtle’s story, and he uses it well. His descriptions of the natural world are so spot on, putting me along the coast and on the craggy islands, walking me through creekbeds and making me watch spiders and scorpions with fascination.
In the beginning, Turtle wants nothing to do with the world outside her own, which makes sense. But, when her grandfather dies, she has to venture out. Seeming like a minor character, his death shows him for what he was: a buffer between Turtle and her father, protecting her from the worst. A person who shows her love (although limited), rather than the control and ownership that passes for love with her father Martin.
It’s after her grandfather’s death that she must start to figure it all out and to venture out. She starts to realize that life can be different. She decides to fight for herself and her own soul, because she realizes her soul belongs to her and no one else.
(A couple of questions that are never answered and would make GREAT discussion questions:
- What went on between Martin and his father to make Martin hate him so much?
- What REALLY happened to Turtle’s mother?
If you read My Absolute Darling, please tell my your thoughts!)
What spurs her on, after her grandfather’s death, to venture out into the unknown, to want more than her small life, is the same thing that makes teenagers the world over start to want more than their small lives: it’s love. For Turtle it’s a deep friendship with Jacob, a boy who can see past the rawness of Turtle to the beauty, brains, and grit of her. A boy who thinks she can do anything.
And that shows Turtle that she’s more than just her father’s disciple. It puts a piece of her into place, showing her that love is more than being scared. Because Jacob expects more of her, she becomes more. She stops worrying about only herself and her small world, starts worrying about how her actions – and inactions – can and are affecting the world around her and those she cares about.
My Absolute Darling is a story of survival, but it’s also a coming-of-age story. Turtle’s world is not normal, and her life is one of extremes and violence, one that she has to survive more than live. But, at it’s heart, My Absolute Darling is an age old story of a girl finding her place in the world.
If you do decide to read or listen to this, know that it’s dark and difficult. Don’t listen to it with children around, the story has some very graphic moments and vulgar words (beyond crass into true hateful vulgarity). I had to take a break from it for a few days, it was just that disturbing in a real world kind of way.
But I did come back. The story’s compelling and irresistible qualities won over its more disconcerting and unsettling ones. Turtle is a commanding protagonist, one demanding your attention, refusing your desire to turn away. Tallent doesn’t shy away from her dark thoughts and realities, but that makes her triumphs that much more substantive. Turtle is the real deal.
She’s a real survivor.