My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, a book I can’t leave 2017 without talking about

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He doesn’t want to hurt me. He loves me more than life itself.  He’s not a perfect person sometimes. Sometimes he’s not the person he wants to be. But he loves me more than anybody else has ever been loved. I think that counts for everything. (p. 254)

Turtle believes this about her father. That he loves her more than anything. Children believe what they want to believe, when everything points to a truth they don’t want to believe.

Everything about you, kibble, is perfect. Every detail. You are the platonic ideal of yourself. Your every blemish, every scratch, is inimitable elaboration on your beauty and your wildness. You look like a naiad. You look like a girl raised by wolves. You know that? (p. 268)

In the same way that A Little Life made me gasp and cringe and read compulsively onward, My Absolute Darling carries a similar effect. It is gorgeous and sorrowful and courageous all at the same time, and unlike any other book I’ve read this year.

No, she thinks. No, it cannot be that at the end of it all, I am like you. That cannot be. Those parts of you I turn from, I will turn from forever and I will not at the end of it find that I am like you. She makes a wedge of her hands, fits it between her thighs, sits clenching them. (p. 267)

When her father leaves quite suddenly, for weeks and weeks, Turtle catches up with her friend, Jacob. He is a boy whose normalcy throws her off guard, and strengthens her during her father’s absence. Yet even their friendship is fraught with danger. She has taken severe beatings from her father for even wanting to  befriend Martin; she has almost died with Jacob when they were caught unaware by a tide and stranded, wounded, on an island.

Jacob does not understand the severity, or the complexity, of Turtle’s relationship with her father. He does not have any idea about the fragility and desperation of her life: loving her father, and slowly dying because of his violence, at the same time.

We long for Turtle to find the strength to live independently. We know how brave she is, despite her terror and confusion. But, we don’t know who will emerge victorious in this terribly dysfunctional relationship.

How can I say that such a horrifying book is one of the best I’ve read in 2017? Because it speaks of courage and strength and an indomitable spirit in the face of terrible circumstances. Because it skitters around the edges of a life I once shared with my first husband, an unpredictable and sometimes frightening man, who was also someone I loved.

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