My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Review published on November 11, 2017.

Julia ‘Turtle’ Alveston is a fourteen-year-old girl who lives in rural Mendocino, California, with her depraved, survivalist father Martin. He tries to instil in her respect for animals and nature and he teaches her how to shoot a gun. He also abuses her mentally, physically and sexually. Despite the rotting family home and the rotten family situation, no one seems to notice just how desperate Turtle’s existence is; even those who do suspect that something is  amiss seem incapable of comprehending just how much she suffers every day.

Needing some time and freedom for herself, Turtle escapes into the forest that surrounds her home and encounters two boys, Jacob and Brett, who are roughly her age but who have experienced vastly different early lives. Through her friendship with them, Turtle comes to recognise just how much is wrong with her own life, which sets all the characters on a path towards troubling reflection and bloody confrontation.

My Absolute Darling is certainly a polarising book. Its publication has been greeted by both effusive praise from the likes of Stephen King and Celeste Ng and reactions bordering on revulsion from (generally speaking) less famous commentators. This extreme difference of opinion is easy to understand. While Gabriel Tallent’s writing is often excellent, perhaps even sublime in places, much of the subject matter is so starkly grim and disturbing that it frequently makes for deeply unpleasant reading, especially as some of the passages describing sexual matters (which are after all matters of rape and incest here) seem to verge on being gratuitous.

Turtle’s story was always going to be a difficult one to tell, but Tallent hasn’t quite managed to strike the right balance between a realistic portrayal of horrifying abuse as well as the psychological impact it has on the victim and a captivating story peopled by believable characters. His descriptions of Martin’s abuse and Turtle’s thoughts regarding both herself and her father are too often sensational, sometimes almost glorifying the inexcusable and suggesting that the victim is seeking the abuse heaped upon her. Turtle herself is ultimately an extremely sympathetic character – she is after all very much a survivor – but when considered in depth, she doesn’t quite ring true.

My Absolute Darling is actually a very hard book to reach a final conclusion on. It is far more of a troubling read than an enjoyable one – even after rushing through certain of the more distressing scenes it proved impossible to shake off the sense of grubby unease and deep upset that the story provoked – and hence a book that cannot really be recommended despite its literary merit. A lot of people will read My Absolute Darling, but it is hard to say how many of them will actually have the stomach to read every word.

Erin Britton 3/3

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Fourth Estate 9780008185213 hbk Aug 2017

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