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A Heroine in the Mold of Huck and Scout

Along with its horrors, “My Absolute Darling” is also a book of nostalgic pleasures. Turtle is a staunchly American type, perhaps the American type — tough, taciturn and almost pathologically self-sufficient. She lives on raw eggs, thistles, the rabbits and crabs she catches herself (how alluring she’ll be to critics of helicopter parenting). With her scabby knees and clear eyes, her native iconoclasm and funny nickname, she recalls the great child characters of American literature, all of them wayward and wounded: Scout from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Bone from “Bastard Out of Carolina,” Frankie from “The Member of the Wedding,” Huck Finn. Her name is significant, too; like Pip from “Great Expectations,” she has chosen it herself, and it harkens back to yet another character — Turtle, the tomboy detective from Ellen Raskin’s young-adult novel “The Westing Game.”

This is a book profoundly about other books, fed by the classics like tributaries.

Nabokov’s ghost presides — as it always does, over stories of innocence defiled — not just in Martin’s arias of self-pity or desire, which recall Humbert Humbert, but in the vocabulary, in the satisfaction of naming the world with scientific precision. Nabokov didn’t refer to Lolita’s hips, but her “iliac crests”; Tallent prefers “scapulae” to shoulder blades, “sclera” to the whites of the eyes. There’s some pretension here, but also something larger: The idea of seeing the world accurately, treating it with care and referring to it with respect is central to the book.


The author Gabriel Tallent in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside Salt Lake City last week.

Michael Friberg for The New York Times

This reverence is communicated in lush portrayals of nature — the shaggy bark of the redwoods; Turtle’s home, sashed in cobwebs. A wave that tosses up “lofted chandeliers of water”; the undertow that “peels sand from the bottom in long, undulate ribbons.”

For all its pedigree, however, “My Absolute Darling” isn’t especially self-reflective. It’s really just a sequence of tightly choreographed action scenes. You’re borne along on swift, shallow water. Turtle hunts eels and survives near-drownings as she woos a boy in her own fashion. Later, she must try to survive Martin, after he discovers the relationship, using the very skills he’s taught her.

Tallent is a confident enough writer to leave plot strands loose, but he leaves too much psychological terrain unmapped. “There is so much of her life she doesn’t understand,” Tallent writes of Turtle. “She knows what happened, but why it happened and what it meant, she doesn’t know.” “Same, Turtle, same,” I wrote in the margins.

Turtle is almost devoid of interiority; almost nothing she thinks or says is worth quoting. A typical example: “She thinks, we have never been all right and we aren’t ever going to be all right. She thinks, I don’t even know what all right would look like. I don’t know what that would mean.” A case could be made that this is a consequence of abuse, that she’s vacated her body, split from her mind. But Tallent takes pains to tell us that “her mind cannot be taken by force.” You’d be forgiven for wondering, what mind?

What we’re left with is an action hero, a kind of male fantasy figure out of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” And it’s a fantasy of a wearying sort, because Turtle has clearly been designed to be “empowering.” It’s a particular kind of condescension that recalls the director James Cameron’s recent remarks that the portrayal of Wonder Woman in this year’s blockbuster wasn’t gritty or tough enough, that it was insulting to women. Patty Jenkins, the director of the film, responded, in part: “If women have to always be hard, tough and troubled to be strong, and we aren’t free to be multidimensional … we haven’t come very far, have we?”

But when it comes to narratives about sexual abuse, we have come far. This year alone there have been two complex and challenging memoirs — “The Incest Diary,” by an anonymous author, and “The Fact of a Body,” by the lawyer Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich — that pushed the boundaries of writing about trauma. Tallent is so fearless when evoking what the body can withstand, so scrupulous at capturing the visible world; what a writer he’ll be when he turns to charting internal, invisible cartographies as well.

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