J. Robert Lennon
- My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Fourth Estate, 432 pp, £12.99, August 2017, ISBN 978 0 00 818521 3
- Elmet by Fiona Mozley
John Murray, 311 pp, £8.99, March 2018, ISBN 978 1 4736 7649 7
A motherless 14-year-old child, unconstrained by society and gender, is being raised by a violent father. Shunned by their community, they live far from others, sustained by hunting and fishing; they pride themselves on their independence, their rejection of modern morality. Their home is roughly built, their clothes unfashionable, but their way of life is stable – until everything changes.
That paragraph describes two very different first novels, one by an American man whose protagonist is a nonconforming young woman; the other by a British woman whose protagonist is a nonconforming young man. The two examine childhood, parenthood and self-determination, at a time when true autonomy is rare. The British novel reads like a socialist manifesto: simple workers try to lead honest lives and evil landowners manipulate them; its nuance comes in depictions of the natural environment and its attention to the changing politics of gender and sexuality. The American book presents itself as psychological-realist horror, with forays into survivalist fiction and, surprisingly, teen romance; its successes include rhythmic prose and a memorable heroine. Both indulge in some of the excesses common to first novels – an eagerness to make themselves understood, a lack of descriptive concision, a structural scruffiness born, one imagines, of inspiration – but also demonstrate talents that could sustain long careers. Despite their similarities, they are highly distinctive.
My Absolute Darling is set in a semi-wild America we will eventually learn is Mendocino, a tiny town in northern California surrounded by cliffs and redwood forests. We realise on the very first page that we are in the Weathered Americana school of fiction: an old house, climbing roses and peeling paint; bullet-riddled sheet metal and spent shell casings; a pickup truck, flannel, a pair of Levi’s. (The word ‘Levi’s’ appears enough times throughout the book to raise suspicion of product placement. As in many novels of rural America, such brands function as signifiers of authenticity, along with exhaustively researched detail about guns, the properties of knife steel and the names of plants.) The jeans are worn by Martin, father of the protagonist, Julia, a 14-year-old girl who goes by Turtle. Martin – intelligent, narcissistic, an autodidact – has shunned the outside world, convinced he is better than everyone in it: stronger, smarter, harder. He has raised his daughter to feel the same. Martin is a day drinker and a heavy consumer of books, which he wields as conversational weapons, alongside the actual weapons he also perpetually wields. His love for his daughter, whom he is forever training to be some kind of survivalist superhero, is disturbing. He affectionately calls her Kibble, but – sometimes in the same breath – bitch and cunt; he forces her at knifepoint to perform feats of strength, agility and marksmanship and every now and again he rapes her.
Turtle is an ideal survivor. She is stern, perspicacious (though failing in school), and inhabits her body preternaturally, like a creature of the forest, which she kind of is. She knows she’s being abused, and wants to murder her father; but she also craves his approval and privately berates herself in his voice, as in this bout of sexualised self-flagellation:
She stoops there, thinking, slit, slit, slit, that unlovely slot lodged between her legs, unfinished by inattention or design, opening into her own peculiarity, its aperture and its sign, and she understands it now; the slit is illiterate – that word undresses her of all that she has knotted and buckled up about herself; she feels collapsed – every bitter, sluttish part of her collapsed and made identical to that horrible clam.
In spite of the abuse and everything she knows it has done to her, Turtle admires Martin above all other people. Every impulse to flee is matched by another to give herself over to his familiar attention.
The balance is interrupted when, during an extended ramble through the woods, Turtle encounters a pair of young men from town, Jacob and Brett. She knows them from school; they know her as that weird girl with the scary dad. They’re lost. Turtle agrees to lead them back to town, but darkness falls, and they end up having to make camp together; in doing so, Turtle amazes them with her wilderness-survival acumen. These boys are charming nerds, outlandishly articulate, and through them Turtle gets her first glimpse of what life might be like for a smart kid from a loving home: ‘The boys talk in a way that is alarming and exciting to her – fantastical, gently celebratory, silly. To Turtle, slow of speech, with her inward and circular mind, their facility for language is dizzying. She feels brilliantly included within that province of things she wants, lit up from within by possibility.’ Eventually, she finds herself drawn further into their orbit, and their world of stoner, new age parents with disposable income. This is the world she’s been trained to hate, but she can’t, because everyone is nice to her, and because she’s falling in love with Jacob.
Martin senses an imminent betrayal, and strives to separate Turtle from her allies, who include one of her teachers and Martin’s father, her dissipated advocate. Grandpa encourages Turtle to go to a school dance with Jacob, then dies suddenly during an argument over it with Martin, and instead of holding a funeral, Martin and Turtle burn his trailer to the ground. (This effort to immolate the past fails at first – the fire won’t light. But when it does, the resulting explosion nearly kills them both.) Before long, Martin has pulled Turtle out of school and then abruptly disappears.
Everything changes while he’s gone. Turtle begins to rely on her friends from town, and then one day she and Jacob, absorbed in trying to catch eels on a rocky beach, are caught off-guard by a rising tide and end up stranded, broken and battered, on a small island just off the shore. What follows is a Jack Londonesque tale of survival, with the twist that deliverance lies barely a hundred feet away, on the other side of violent waters. The means of Turtle and Jacob’s eventual self-rescue echoes, cleverly, the perpetual nearness of Turtle’s salvation from the prison of her life with her father.
When Martin returns at last, he has brought someone with him: a ten-year-old girl called Cayenne whom he picked up during his travels. She’s both a rebuke to Turtle’s rebellion and her evident successor. Turtle despises the girl – Cayenne has stolen her father’s attention – but she also serves as a mirror in which Turtle is forced, at last, to confront her own predicament.
There have been so many guns over the mantel in this story that the reader can’t help but expect it to climax like Chekhov says it must, times a thousand. It does, before giving way to a hopeful, quiet coda. The ending, a study in contrasts, allows Tallent to show his range, which is alternately lyrical and minimalist, horrific and comic. The book is impressive on the sentence level but its many riffs and filigrees are a distraction from its real achievement: a sensitive yet steadfast portrayal of a hopelessly damaged child.
In Elmet, it’s the idea of home that lingers in the mind. The book spends its energy in the domestic scenes: the building of a house, the preparation of food; stolen glimpses of a woman’s wardrobe. The novel is rarely as vivid and memorable as it is in this throwaway passage:
I would empty my mother’s washing onto the floor … Tops, socks, knickers, bras, a pair of jeans. A small collection, carelessly strewn. There was carelessness too in the way the garments had been kept. The socks were well-worn at the heels and at the toes bobbles had appeared. Elastic had become detached from the small pair of knickers, cut from synthetic fabric designed to imitate lace. There were more tallies than the lace-like fabric had intended and these were frayed.
Of course this paragraph isn’t frivolous at all – it’s stealthily significant. The 14-year-old narrator, Daniel, is ‘a funny lad’, as his father puts it. When Daniel asks what he means, Daddy says: ‘You like making house nice and that.’ This is a signal to the reader; we learn, in a series of italicised, florid passages that occasionally interrupt the book, that Daniel will eventually realise he is gay, and may be transgender. ‘You have to appreciate that I never thought of myself as a man,’ he says midway through the novel. ‘I did not know then that it was girls not boys who grew their hair and their nails long.’
I suspect that Elmet would like to be seen, in part, as an exploration of gender mores. But Daniel’s gender identity, at times, feels like the only note he’s been given to sing, and a little too loudly, at that; his particularity never really comes through. Early in the book, he has a memory of ‘a small plastic dolly with blonde curls lying face down in the mud of the front garden of the house on the corner, her pink cotton frock hitched up around her ears’. It feels like the observation a girl might make, but not necessarily the girl that Daniel’s male body harbours – his sexuality often comes off as rote rather than rebellious.
More interesting is Cathy, Daniel’s older sister, who closely resembles Turtle in My Absolute Darling: a tomboy, raised in isolation by a man poorly suited to the job, and taught skills typically taken up by boys. Although it’s through Daniel that Mozley invites us to think about gender, he is presented to us as a solved problem, a case study. Cathy, heterosexual and cis-gender, will be asked to protect home and family when Daddy runs into trouble. The daddy in question, a brooding outdoorsman and occasional builder and handyman, is called John, but Daniel and Cathy always call him Daddy, which amuses their landlord’s arrogant son as much as their mode of dress and their way of life do. The motherless family is squatting in a hand-built house on land in North Yorkshire owned by the greedy Mr Price; the conflict between the two families, latent for most of the book, will eventually burst into violence, as has been promised since page one.
This book does a lot of promising. Although Daddy is gentle with his children, he’s known around town as an amateur boxer, quick to anger and eager to retaliate. Vivien, a family friend who, it’s implied, may also be Daddy’s occasional lover, explains him to Daniel in a long, metaphorical speech: ‘Your Daddy needs it. The violence. I wouldn’t say he enjoys it, even, but he needs it. It quenches him.’ The sinister Price praises Daddy’s ‘great, hulking body, the like of which I’ve never seen … I want to see those muscles tested, and those fists put to their proper use.’ Even Daddy himself speaks of ‘the men he had fought and the men he had killed’, including a moment early in the novel when he confronts a soldier who boasted about his exploits in Iraq and Bosnia:
When Daddy came back he told us that he had an argument with the squaddy. He had clouted the squaddy about the head with his left fist and now had a bloody nick in his skin just by the thumb knuckle.
I asked him what had started the argument.
‘He were a bastard, Daniel,’ Daddy said to me. ‘He were a bastard.’
Cathy and I thought that was fair enough.
Daniel is a strange narrator. At times his sentences read like a child’s; at other times, they are wordy and elaborate, often about things not integral to the story. On the one hand, this dreaminess and instability are consistent with Daniel’s confusion about his identity. But on the other, this uneven first person can feel unthought-through. We’re made to understand that the story is being told from some less dramatic time in the future, but the more childish passages seem to be happening now. It’s also unclear where, or when, the italicised passages come from, and what their relationship is to the story proper, other than that they’re fancier in style and seem to refer to a time after the novel’s main events. Daniel talks like an unreliable narrator, except when he doesn’t, offering insights into people and events that we are invited to take as gospel. The narrative creaks and moans through these shifts: Mozley could have chosen a close third person narrator rather than insisting on speaking through Daniel.
In fact, I sometimes wished that Daniel would cede the book to Cathy. I found his differentness less interesting the longer I read, and Cathy’s more compelling. Nevertheless, Elmet builds towards a highly dramatic climax. Plotting isn’t the book’s strength, but there is a storyline: Daddy, fed up with mistreatment at the hands of landowners and bosses, organises local workers at a bonfire night meeting; they agree to go on strike, refusing to accept jobs or pay rent. Meanwhile, Mr Price organises the bigwigs, and they threaten to replace the workers and drive them from their homes. The fulcrum, it seems, is Daddy himself: Price wants to make him fight a hulking foreigner called The Bear, and if he wins, Price will sign the land beneath the family home over to Daniel, whose mother Price apparently once loved. Plot elements succeed one another quickly after this: Daddy wins the fight, but someone is murdered; money is stolen; it all culminates in blood and fire. Cathy at last emerges as a central figure, then disappears into the wilderness, like her father; her absence will cast a shadow, we’re led to believe, over Daniel’s life.
One senses political partisanship at the edges of both of these novels. Elmet is blunt, cartoonish at times; in the form of Price and his terrible sons it offers an unsubtle critique of capitalism. If Mozley had made Daddy’s stubbornness less admirable, and Price’s desire for control over his property (and, in a largely unexplored instance of repressed homoeroticism, Daddy’s body) less sinister, the book would have made a stronger case for its politics and been a stronger tragedy. My Absolute Darling takes a wiser course, I think; at first it seems to embrace the casual conservatism common to many novels of hardscrabble America, presenting book-learning as the refuge of a vicious coward and applauding mastery of the body and land. But it also offers a brisk sociopolitical survey of northern California: Tallent shows us, in Jacob and Brett, what learning brings, and he presents their upper-middle-class families as self-possessed and compassionate, their homes as places of refuge.
These novels offer contrasting views of what constitutes a home. In Elmet, ownership of the land is thought to be ephemeral, but the house that stands on it isn’t: ‘Every season the house looked older than it was,’ Daniel explains, ‘and the longer it looked to have been there the longer we knew it would last. Like all real houses and all those that call them home.’ Conversely, My Absolute Darling treats the land as sovereign, houses as temporary. Martin and Turtle live on one of the last pieces of undeveloped private real estate in the area, worth millions. Yet their home is falling apart; they shoot their guns indoors, blowing holes through the walls, which go unrepaired and eventually cease to be noticed. There is a fine description of Grandpa’s trailer home, the day after his death; his possessions are ‘awful and painful in their shabbiness’. Turtle gazes at the card table where she once played cribbage with her grandfather, at his mildewed sheets and plastic windows that once seemed homey. ‘Christ, she thinks, has it always been this awful?’ In Elmet there is a happy home on unstable land, in an unstable society; in My Absolute Darling domestic misery is found in an unchanging landscape.
Perhaps, too, these novels are oblique essays on their nations of origin. There is something distinctively, if not uniquely, American about the creepy idyll of Tallent’s book: living an ‘authentic’ life on privately owned land of inestimable value. Selling just a small plot could afford Turtle a house free of bullet holes, her coveted prom dress, markers of ordinary life that Martin regards with disgust. Conversely, if Mozley’s Price heard of Martin’s neglect of his land, he would regard it as an offence against nature itself. ‘If there’s one thing I hate, Daniel,’ he says, moments before Elmet’s climax, ‘it’s waste. The waste of land especially. Good land, made barren. I can’t stand it.’ If the American ideal is the untrammelled, the unpeopled – land that hasn’t been polluted by humans who live on it – then the British is the pastoral, for the wilderness tamed by man’s benevolent but dictatorial hand. Each philosophy, these novels suggest, is ripe for corruption. Any ground can be fertile ground for the evil that men do.