Though we inhabit the same space, we often live in separate worlds.
I’ve written previously about differences in perception and how these steer our interpretation of the world – these differences are dramatic between humans and other species, but can be stark between two humans as well. Political discourse has been derailed in this country because large groups of people hold such distinct worldviews, and it’s become increasingly rare for either side to strive to empathize with the beliefs of the others.
I’m guilty of this, too. I sometimes rail about the way science is taught. But many people believe that our purpose in life is to reach communion with God. From that perspective, public education that distances students from religious faith needs to be disrupted, whether with alternate curricula, charter schools, or budget cuts.
In My Absolute Darling, Gabriel Tallent depicts the devastating fallout that can accompany a merging of worlds. Turtle lives in the wilds of Mendocino, California. Her world is utterly distinct from the place where other characters live. Her grandfather, for instance, lives in a world where his son is gruff, demanding, perhaps overprotective … but ultimately a loving father.
His world crumbles when he sees the deep bruises mottling his granddaughter’s legs – his son has beaten her with a metal rod. He has to confront fourteen years of misconceptions. It kills him.
Or, when Turtle visits a friend’s home, she looks around the immaculate space, puzzled.
“Where are your tools and things?’
There had been none in the garage.
“You know – tools,” she says.
“Oh, there’s a whole bunch of tools in Mom’s workshop. Acetylene torches and things.” [The boy’s mother is an artist.]
She says, “So what do you do when something breaks?”
Jacob looks at her smiling, as if waiting for the rest of that sentence. Then he says, “You mean, like – are you asking, like, which plumber do we call? I could ask Dad.”
Turtle stands looking at him.
They are in the same room. But they are living in separate worlds. The boy was not raised by an apocalypse-prepping sociopath. No one demanded that he practice marksmanship each day.
“It’s a precaution,” she says.
“Is it, though?” he says. “Owning a gun, you are nine times more likely to be shot by a family member than by an intruder.”
She cracks a knuckle, unimpressed.
“I’m sorry,” he says, softening. “I’m not challenging you, or criticizing – not at all – I just want to hear your perspective. That’s all. I don’t really think that you’re gonna be shot by a family member.”
By this time, though – barely a quarter of the way through the novel – it’s quite clear to readers that Turtle will be shot by a family member. Her worldview is deeply tainted by the teachings of her father.
Which was grim for me to read, as a parent. Tallent constantly reminds readers of the control that parents exercise over their children. Parents’ philosophies permeate their children’s souls, perhaps distancing children from the world. Turtle’s father shows up to a school conference and rants about the utter uselessness of what his daughter is learning – and I cringed to think how reasonable his arguments against spelling memorization sounded in a world that is actively crumbling around us.
Tallent makes it seductively easy to empathize with his monster.
The book is lovely. Brutal, but beautiful.
Once Turtle befriends two boys her own age – lost in the woods, much worse at navigation than at spinning tales about patrolling their someday garbage kingdom atop mutant iguana steeds – we see that she has kept some fraction of her world safe from the corruption of her father. Previously, no one has known Turtle’s name. Her father calls her “kibble,” her grandfather “sweatpea,” her classmates and teacher “Julia.”
Those people are not in her world. As far away as someone who’d look at a mushroom’s gills and call them “louvers.”
But when Turtle meets those two boys, she knows they will be friends. She tells them her name. “Turtle.” She has a world. She’s willing to invite others in.
She might just be okay.