My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, 417 pp., ***½ out of four stars) is a powerful debut novel for Gabriel Tallent and a gripping introduction to a seriously brave little girl.

Turtle Alveston is a 14-year-old middle-schooler in coastal Northern California who’s better at cleaning guns and shooting targets than taking vocabulary tests.

After her mother’s death in a diving accident, her survivalist father Martin has raised Turtle in dilapidated conditions, isolated from everybody outside their front door. He put a gun in her hand at a young age, and ever since has been readying her for the end of the world, while also constantly telling her, “You are mine.” And not in the most benevolent fashion.

Martin is a brutal, abusive creep, and the book excels in digging into their complicated relationship. He constantly calls Turtle by the pet name “kibble” and insists she’s his “absolute darling.” Yet his is a dangerous love, and Martin keeps Turtle captive in her own life by preying on insecurities that he’s seeded deep inside her. He’s taught her to be strong physically, but warns that “the time will come, kibble, when just being fast and accurate won’t be enough.”

 

Turtle begins to see this dire situation for what it is when she spends time outside her father’s influence — which naturally doesn’t go over well with dad. Her ailing grandfather becomes worried when he sees nasty wounds and bruises on her body, an English teacher yearns for her to try harder and reach her potential, and new friends Brett and Jacob show her the importance of friendship while also assuming she’s a ninja. (One of them even spawns romantic pangs for the first time in Turtle’s young life.)

Tallent writes about Turtle’s surroundings with lyrical prose, contrasting her unfortunate living conditions with the oceanic beauty just a short walk away. He also pulls no punches in describing in detail the instances of physical, mental and sexual abuse Martin inflicts on his daughter, who remains brave amid them all yet struggles internally. In that way, My Absolute Darling is an affecting read but also an important one.

Her dad is all she has, and his “teachings” have instilled in her flawed traits she has to work through, especially when another, younger girl comes under Martin’s persuasive influence and “that big, towering, sometimes generous,…