My Absolute Darling – Gabriel Tallent

My Absolute Darling is a brutal tale told in third narrative style from the perspective of the main character “Turtle”. Turtle navigates a life that is “different” from her peers, although it’s not always 100% clear if she knows why that is true. It also follows her as she tries to interpret her relationship with her father. As novels go novels go it is an impressive feat for sure, and contrasts the dark and abusive life Turtle leads with a rich linguistic tapestry that reflects the Californian wilderness.

I think that might be the only good thing I have to say about it. I wanted to enjoy it, and was assured I would by the *many* glowing reviews, but I’m still waiting to be amazed.

It’s hard to explain without giving the game away, not that I’d recommend this book to anyone, but expect a few vague spoilers ahead.

Now when I describe it as “brutal”, know that I am not over exaggerating. At times, My Absolute Darling is very difficult to read, and dare I say for very pointless reasons. It seems to me that the writer’s intentions were to be shocking for the sake of shock. Tallent is careful in what he says – nothing is explicitly stated at first, and because the story is told through Turtle’s eyes there’s even more uncertainty.

It felt like his intentions were to weave a certain level of doubt into what we know is happening between this father and daughter, so you’re questioning it the same way Turtle is. Yes, this may be a literary tool utilised to create discomfort in the reader, and to a certain extent that was achieved, but all that did for me was make it seem as though the writer was complicit or even agreeable with what is happening to the main character.

Which brings me to the main question that plagued me throughout the entire read: why is he romanticising abuse?

I understand that Stockholm Syndrome is a thing. And while I’m fortunate enough not to be familiar with the subject matter, I can appreciate and understand (to the limited extent somebody without that experience can) that abuse of a child has long-lasting effects on how that child processes the world and relationships. But…it just felt very clearly like a guy imagining what a young girl might feel, not an eye-opening tale from a survivor. Which led me to my next question….why would this guy want to imagine such a thing for the sake of fiction? I’m not suggesting anything untoward AT ALL, but doesn’t he know that these kinds of stories about young women who have survived through the most horrific of circumstances should be told by…you guessed it, the survivors themselves?

It seems like another example of some guy profiting from something he has no authority to write about. Which would almost work if the book had set some clear boundaries…but it just didn’t? Endlessly long, flowery sentences about Turtle’s surroundings and body (Roxanne Gay wrote something really awesome about how stupid they were – that seemed to last forever, and yet it’s never made clear that she knows or feels the situation she’s in is horribly wrong.

Something really interesting happened to me when I was reading this. I felt disconnected and weird, like something wasn’t quite right. Something felt disingenuous and wrong, like what I was reading was off-centre. Then it clicked…’s not Gabrielle (female), it’s Gabriel…male. Learning that helped the book click back into place. The reason these long descriptions of a girl growing up felt so wrong? The person writing them has no idea what it feels like to grow from a girl into a woman’s body.

And then the end…oh the end. It could actually be this that made the rest of the story seem so fraudulent and false. To continue the story in a thoughtful way that saw turtle escape and be able to process what she had gone through would have felt like the book had a genuine altruistic purpose in some way…but no. It ends with a ridiculous, elaborate shootout. I felt like I was going crazy reading it. It completely compromised the rickety foundations the story had been building in my mind…they crumbled like wet sand as Turtle engaged in a shootout with her abuser. It’s like hey, come watch this poor abused girl fight to the death with her abuser…popcorn?

I know I’ve rambled. And hey, this is just my humble opinion. Maybe I’m dumb and the actual purpose of the prose went over my head? Possible. But that still doesn’t mean it wasn’t awful to read.

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