My Absolute Darling is a book you may have heard a lot about recently. I myself picked up a copy of Gabriel Tallent’s debut novel following the reactions of some of my favourite bookish people on social media. And it is a book for which there has been a lot of hype, with high praise from Stephen King adorning the cover. With this in mind I was eagerly anticipating reading My Absolute Darling, to see if this is a story worthy of its hype…
This novel focuses on the relationship between fourteen year old Julia ‘Turtle’ Alveston and her father, Martin. Turtle lives with her father in a remote part of the Californian coast, in a home that has seen better days. Turtle’s life here, is a difficult one, but it is the only one she knows. Her father is very strict with her, and has filled her mind with the prospect of a world crumbling around her, one in which they only have each other. But whilst Martin declares Turtle his absolute darling, the focus of his world, his treatment of her is disturbing. After reading the opening chapters of this book, I was left in shock by this man’s actions but whilst there are moments in this book that make for uncomfortable reading, I couldn’t tear my eyes from the pages, desperate to see if Turtle can break loose from this life. It is heartbreaking to see how little Turtle values herself, how she has come to believe this strange world in which she has been brought up. She shrugs away offers of help from a kind teacher, Anna, and the other girls at school, adopting the same misogynist attitude as her father. But as Turtle gets a glimpse at a different life, there is hope for the reader that maybe, just maybe, she can be free.
I was very quickly drawn into this story and as cliché as it may sound it was a struggle to put it down. Tallent’s writing is astonishing, and he manages to portray not only the brutality Turtle experiences, but the beauty of the landscape with which Turtle comes into her own. The descriptions of the coastline and of a world seen through the eyes of a remarkable girl are a joy to read, perfectly capturing the atmosphere and reinforcing the feeling of Turtle’s isolation. I would say that this book may not be to every readers taste. There is a lot of foul language along with detailed descriptions of the physical and emotional abuse suffered which makes for a harrowing read. However, I do feel this was appropriate in presenting the true extent of a damaging relationship, an unflinching portrayal of brutality, and how difficult it is to break free from it. Whilst this is a difficult read at times there is a glimmer of hope as we see Turtle spend time away from her home, finding friendship and seeing what life is like away from her crumbling home. I was willing Turtle on throughout, hoping she could see how life can be so different. There was a feeling of unease throughout as you wonder what may happen next, as we see a teenage girl at war with her own mind, and that of the man who has control over her.
I finished reading My Absolute Darling in just a few sittings and despite the difficult subject matter I found this to be a compelling read and one I really enjoyed. It is an important book, one in which it explores abuse and its complexity. It is a book that has the power to shock and disgust, one in which you want to turn away. But the visceral, beautiful writing, and the story of Turtle and her journey, was one that had me hooked till the end.