How the Wilderness saves Turtle Alveston

In recent years it’s fair to say there have been quite a few novels about girls: girls with tattoos, girls on trains, girls in red coats, girls before, girls online, gone girls and, of course, the girls. But I can say with absolute confidence that you’ll have never met a girl like Turtle – the fourteen-year-old heroine of Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut novel. Turtle Alveston grows up in a decrepit house on the coast of Northern California in thrall to her father Martin, a reclusive autodidact and survivalist who is determined at all costs to keep his daughter close.

Deeply loyal to the man who both controls her and teaches her, Turtle has been raised to see herself and the world from Martin’s warped perspective. But she has also been raised with remarkable survival skills. And when the emotional defences she has erected to keep others out are breached by people who begin to care for her, Turtle must call on all those skills to escape Martin’s dangerous orbit and free herself from her demons – inside as well as out.

I read My Absolute Darling in one exhilarating rush. There, in our company canteen, surrounded by about a hundred other people, I reached a particularly heart-stopping moment in the novel and I actually screamed out loud. This is a novel that grabs you by the throat, hurls you around the room, and doesn’t let go. It is visceral and electrifying and utterly original – it is like nothing you’ll have read before.

Words: Helen Ganon Williams, 4th Estate Publishing Director


In college, a professor introduced me to a long eighteenth-century poem by James Thomson called The Seasons. Tremendously influential in its time, it is a lyrical and expansive description of the countryside. There is an entire language here that attends to and celebrates the natural world, and reading it, the salient feature is how rare that is. This is a loss, because it’s probably good for a person, to feel for wild places and to see them clearly. I thought about that a lot while writing My Absolute Darling, because Turtle is deeply rooted in place in a way that is rare. She is a wounded person.

The hurt that has been done to her is, to her, inscrutable. She can make no sense of it, and to begin making sense of it, she must pit her own judgment against the part of herself that loves her father. It is, in some ways, her very selfhood, her personhood, that is under attack. I think most of us have seen people who could never be more than their old, childhood injuries. There are people in whom the hurt is too deeply rooted. That is what is at hazard.

And, in some ways, it is Turtle’s sustained and attentive relationship to the world beyond herself that saves her. If her father is too hurt to think of anything outside of himself for very long, Turtle is a different, and a more observant person, better able to see herself, better able to reason through her own mind. In this project of seeing clearly, of observing closely, her wilderness fastnesses are her best and most enduring tutors. I remember very clearly as a child loving the places I found. Loving the ponds and the stony creeks and the redwoods. I remember how it felt, finding pacific giant salamanders in stream banks. It felt like a miracle. The wilderness is the dominant source of love and wonder in her life. Her life takes place in a very different setting.

So part of what I wanted to do with this book was to capture what is so alive and important about the American Northwest. Turtle lives in and attends to a world that has fallen somewhat from the cultural discourse. Her everyday life is a deeply rooted in a wilderness that is hard for many of us to imagine, and her story unfolds in a setting alien to many of us. I wanted to make that place meaningful and real to the reader. I guess my hope was to put some of those places on the page, and to help you feel their urgency, as something you had perhaps not seen before. I felt there was value in that, as there was value for Turtle, in a seeing a world that is outside of ourselves.


Photo by Jenna Christina on Unsplash

Posted on June 12, 2018 by

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"How the Wilderness saves Turtle Alveston"

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