My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

Audiobook review - narration by Alex McKenna

I tend to listen to audiobooks in the early hours of the morning when suffering from insomnia. The notion is that reading a book is likely to wake me up too much and that just lying there counting sheep is counterproductive in terms of wrestling with endlessly cycling thoughts and emotions. Audiobooks, in theory, provide a happy medium between the two; hopefully tapping into the childhood ‘bedtime story’ vibe.

With this in mind, Gabriel Tallent’s book in hindsight, was not the best book to choose for this purpose. It is not an ‘easy’ listen. In the same way that Jack Ketchum’s ‘Girl next door’ was not an easy read. It’s a story that grips you, attaches you to the complex characters and pummels your emotions like a butter churner. Definitely not sleep-inducing stuff!

Turtle Alveston is a young teenage girl and protagonist in this story. She has several names. Her real one is Julia, but her Dad, Martin, calls her ‘Kibble’ (don’t know if I’ve spelled that right – it was an audiobook after all.) At first it’s quite difficult to tell what exactly this young girl’s character is or where the story is going. In fact the first chapter or two are very intriguing for this reason. But one thing the reader/listener is left in doubt about, is that Turtle has an extraordinary upbringing and that things are not quite … normal. She meticulously maintains and expertly uses firearms. She eats raw eggs for breakfast. Her morning routine includes uncapping a bottle of beer for her obsessive and controlling father. She knows how to look after herself in the wild.

Turtle has no friends at school but is not bullied. There’s something so edgy about her that other kids keep a respectful distance. In fact, it isn’t until one of her forays into the wilderness turns into a several day absence from home that she forges a relationship of sorts with two, lost teenage hikers.

As a listener, I remained immersed in the story while I figured out my bearings as a result of Tallent’s uncanny … ahem … talent for description and internal dialogue on the part of Turtle. I’ve watched one interview with the author on youtube and he reveals that he purposefully set out to depict Turtle’s character as a ‘glimmer’ that became fully formed after he repeated draft after draft. As such, he has been able to get into the essence of this complex, young, female character and that is a great accomplishment as a male author. Turtle is the ultimate unreliable narrator as she seeks to make sense of and justify her predicament, often mimicking speech and thought patterns of her father.

Tallent interweaves the scenes and settings of North California with consummate skill. As a biologist, I was enthralled at his descriptions of the plant-life in the story. Something that is not incidental. Turtle’s exploration of the local flora is interwoven with some heavy emotional themes that come to the fore in conversations with her grandfather and her struggles with a garden at the end of the book.

It’s hard to chart the emotional roller-coaster that this book takes you on without giving spoilers, so all I can say is that just when you feel you are able to take a breather from the wrenching you have gone through in one scene – bam! Tallent hits you with another. The depictions of violence, cruelty and abuse pull no punches. But these are not prurient or facile attempts to shock. In Tallent’s own words they are an honest effort to treat the subject matter in a manner that has integrity and reality. The book is stronger for it. For me, the most excruciating moments are Martin’s coercive and insidious justifications for his actions and the way he tries to place the responsibility for what happens on Turtle. Like I said – not sleep-inducing fare.

Another drawing point for me were the observations that characters make about the natural world in the story and how they are an allegory for momentous issues in those character’s lives. Particularly poignant are the scenes where Turtles grandfather talks to her about the naming of plants and how sometimes things don’t need an immediate name, just the will to describe them. Another, is when Turtle deals with a black widow spider on behalf of a young girl, Cayenne (spelling may be wrong – it’s an audiobook.)

And so we turn our attention to the narrator, Alex Mckenna. At first, I wasn’t sure I was going to like her voice. It has a husky quality which made me think she needed to clear her throat, but it gradually grew on me. Being an audio-narrator myself I can only marvel at McKenna’s phrasing and characterisation. From the menace of Martin’s domineering personality, to the hippyish banter of Jacob and Brett, McKenna fleshes out the characters with effortless skill.

Stephen King has placed this book on a pedestal with ‘Catch 22’ and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’‘My Absolute Darling’ will both entice and appall you in equal measure. Don’t listen if you have a heart condition.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: