We gave it a B+
Months before its release date, My Absolute Darling was already marked as a novel of superlatives: the most anticipated, the most transcendent, the most disturbing debut of the year so far. Could it possibly be all those things? The book’s cover bears glowing testimonials from Stephen King and Phil Klay, and there’s no doubt that Gabriel Tallent is a phenomenally gifted writer (it will probably be hard for any reviewer to resist a reference to his appropriate surname here). But Darling is also a difficult and often deeply unsettling read, the kind that overused phrases like “trigger warning” were actually made for.
Fourteen-year-old Julia “Turtle” Alveston and her father Martin have carved out a universe built strictly for two on California’s rugged Mendocino coastline; a fiercely uncompromising survivalist, Martin has trained his daughter to sleep on a wooden plank, crack raw eggs directly down her throat for breakfast, and take out any target from 50 yards. She’s fully prepared for the apocalypse, but much less proficient on her junior high’s pop-quiz vocabulary tests — or anything, really, that involves outside social interaction. Well-meaning teachers and the tentative friendship overtures of her classmates can’t touch her until the day she meets Jacob, a high school boy who exposes her to things she’s never known (kindness, humor, down comforters). And while his sudden presence brings the promise of a different kind of future, one Turtle had hardly even dared to dream of, it also upends the fragile balance of her father’s unconditional command.
Tallent’s voice — particularly the way he writes about the natural world, in prose so dense and dazzling it feels almost hallucinogenic — is unforgettable, but it sometimes fails him when it comes to actual human dialogue; his characters tend to speak in either clipped monosyllables or grand peculiar paragraphs, oddly untethered from something they said or did two or 200 pages previously. And the book’s graphic depictions of physical and sexual abuse sometimes exhaust the limits of endurance and credulity. But Darling is a remarkable piece of work by almost any metric: Brutal, lyrical, and, for both better and worse, unforgettable. B+