Book review: ‘My Absolute Darling’ by Gabriel Tallent

This book review was written prior to this website transitioning to AI-written reviews by Buddy the BookBot. This review is the opinions of Kirstie, the human.

This book, man. This book. Fucking hell.

Note: if you find that offensive, this book is not for you. Gather up your petticoat, your sharp suit and high-tail it out of here, sir.

Two years ago today, I read ‘My Absolute Darling’ for the first time. Since then, it has been the book that I’ve recommended above all others (with SIGNIFICANT trigger warnings, read: sexual assault, suicidal ideation, domestic violence, incest etc. All the humdingers.).

As much as I want to write a full-blown dissection of the text, I want you to read it for yourselves and for that reason I’m going to keep the twists under wraps. Lonely traveller, you will find no spoilers here. Let’s get into it.

‘My Absolute Darling’ is, once again, a debut novel (I’m getting into a theme with these reviews). It’s a chunky piece of work, with over 400 pages, but that length is necessary in order to fully immerse you in the world of 14 year old Turtle and her survivalist father, Martin. A decision you might regret later when that world is shown to be tainted and festering. 

We start the story in Turtle’s childhood home – a shack of a house that has been left to decay since the death of her mother when she was a child. Turtle physically mimics her father – cracking eggs onto her tongue, cuffing her mouth, cracking open beer bottles, practising her shooting. It is not long too until we learn that Turtle’s mind has also been programmed to mimic Martin.

On page 4, he calls Turtle a bitch. On page 10, Turtle calls her teacher, Anna, a bitch. We realise that this misogyny, this understanding of the world and her place in it has been completely tainted and shaped by her father. By page 16, Martin has delivered an insult that Turtle accepts with something akin to relief – that through his words she can more fully understand and hate herself: “an illiterate little slit”.

The trauma that Turtle suffers at the hand of her father is vicious and constant. Tallent takes care to call his love, ‘love’, but it is clear that this version is abuse and utterly destructive. The way that Turtle has been programmed and taught, and her innate empathy for other people means that she is barely aware of his impact on her until later in the novel, once she is offered a different perspective on the world.

Some of the cruellest scenes in this novel made my insides move like spaghetti being twirled around chopsticks. I had to step away on a couple of occasions on my first read, to catch my breath. 

While her father’s reach is long and brutal, Turtle is free to explore the landscape of Northern California as she pleases, and it is here that she finds solace. It is in this wilderness that she meets Jacob for the first time – a character who shows her another way of being, of interacting with others, of trusting and loving. 

Tallent manages to work remarkably with long detailed paragraphs, and also intensive dialogue. The conversations between some characters – unrushed, realistically verbose in places, random and containing individual mannerisms – are a joy to read. There are no stereotypes here; the characters (including Martin, who provokes a terrifying unease) are multifaceted to the point of being unpredictable. My favorite parts to read were the conversations between best friends Jacob and Brett. Their jumps from trying to score weed to discussing ninjas is playfully serious and endearing.

A beautiful garden metaphor at the end of the novel (still no spoilers, promise) shows the natural process of failure and success, of life and death, of beginnings and endings. The garden is destroyed again and again; each time the owner learns a little more about how to adapt and survive the hurdles.

On the surface, ‘My Absolute Darling’ seems to be an exploration of humanity, of survival in the worst of circumstances, of friendship and hope. But much more than that, it is a dedication to seeing the world accurately, without veneer. The level of meticulous and beautiful detail Tallent weaves into his plot means that we miss little. We see it all. 

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