my absolute darling
My interest in this debut stemmed from strong early reviews from trusted book people and also from the first comparison I heard to A Little Life. Though I intended to start it the day it came out and did shortly thereafter it took me literally months to get past the first third or so before I finally finished it in one quick swoop. This was in part because of other things but also in large part because for the last few weeks I've been recovering from some surgery and just didn't need that kind of additional darkness.
Because this is dark. In many ways it is incredibly well written and I recommend it. It is, however, not quite on par, for me, with A Little Life. It's doubtful anything ever will be, but with A Little Life, I ended the book with a book hangover and a long lasting respect for and strong memories of many of the characters.
That isn't so much the case here. The characters are quite fascinating and the protagonist, Julia (or Turtle as the case may be), is finely well drawn with internal monologues and responses to the world that (mostly) rang true to me as a likely result of the incredibly damaging abuse she endures. However, with Life, the protagonist, Jude, is living a life primarily after the abuse, not during it, like Julia. One would think that this out-of-the-inciting-action storytelling would be less static but instead it places the focus on what's really important - Jude himself, his long-term response to the horrific events in his life, and, most importantly as it affects the reader for long after the story is done, the people in Jude's life that do everything they can to help him.
I try not to spend too much time comparing two books but the parallels here are interesting. And I'll stop with that now, in any case, for fear of dissuading a reader who feels they can withstand such a brutal story. The telling of Julia's story may be different but it doesn't mean she lacks people in her life other than the abuser (or that those people aren't catalysts). And in Julia's story, most of the time what impressed me the most was how Tallent portrays a victim of abuse and the way that abuse affects her actions in the world. It's all about the understanding that the environment that we grow up in is all we know - that's our reality and the only way the world exists. Julia's a misogynist because she has not only ever been told that girls and women are good for only one thing, but that is also the only way she's ever been treated. She talks to herself with the same hatred and disgust as she does all the other females around her. Not only does Tallent illustrate the thinking and actions of a child deeply and irreparably abused but he uncomfortably and finely exposes unfortunately often-true secrets about how such abuse can train our bodies to respond to that abuse in ways that just further damages a person with shame and guilt and confusion. There was one particular detail about Julia's response to the abuse (which is likely not the one that many reviewers might be inclined to criticize) that rang false to me, but it's maybe to spoiler-y and probably difficult to explain if one hasn't read the whole narrative.
Honestly, there were a couple of things about the writing itself that were off-putting to me, and those things were repeated throughout the narrative in a way that I just wanted to say, Stop doing that! but they were fairly negligible as to be not worth detailing. On the whole, the writing is lush and knowing and well done. If you read A Little Life, you can certainly withstand this, but don't approach it as of the same sort of world. It's it's own achievement and stand up well.