Gabriel Tallent might be a sadist. For the pain inflicted on the characters in My Absolute Darling and the attendant pain for the reader. Geeze but it is an intense read. Our protagonist, Turtle, is physically and sexually abused by her father: a survivalist/prepper who has isolated the two of them in the coastal forest of California.
For all the pain the novel describes, it does so with exquisite beauty. Like this reader felt uncomfortable for how frequently I stopped to admire the writing in scenes that are violent and disturbing.
I’d say the book is as much a character study as anything. Turtle is one of the most evocative and fully realized characters I’ve read in ages. It took me some time to adjust to the pain and disturbance of her inner world, but the third person limited narration was pitch perfect. It allowed for the reader to experience with Turtle the subtle and significant moments of character change, all while holding a necessary distance that (for me anyway) made the reading possible.
It’s also a book obsessed with setting. There aren’t many books that manage to make setting exciting. Sure lots of books make setting vivid, or integral to the plot, or thematically appropriate, but here the setting contributes to the violence: in its oceanic power, in its isolation, in the threat of (coming) fecundity.
Every so often I had to remind myself that Tallent imagined this story (I hope). Sat somewhere and thought okay, now Turtle is driving the truck and [this] happens. I had to remind myself because there are so many scenes that combine surprise and inevitability (what is the word for something that is both a surprise and inevitable?), so many moments of creative juxtaposition.
It was also a novel that reminded me how painful reading can be (especially compared to watching a film). In many of the scenes I wanted to close my eyes, but of course the only way to get through the scene was to read it and so to experience it. Sometimes I’d skip ahead, or skim, but felt I was cheating Turtle and so would go back and read properly, if with intense discomfort.
So while it’s an extraordinarily well written novel, I’d be remiss if I didn’t underscore (again) how difficult it was to read. And how it’s okay if you’d rather watch the news. Because that’s less distressing. Oh wait.