A(nother) Review: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

What makes a good book?


(Yes, that’s right, I’ve gone for a nice easy blog this week).


There’s literally (and literary) a whole industry out there full of self-proclaimed experts – of which I am one. The thing is, we’re all readers, and like every other reader out there we all like very different books.


So how do we spot a good book?


My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent is the tale of Turtle Alveston. She is fourteen years old and knows how to use every single gun on her wall. She lives alone with her abusive father in a small backwater town in America.


She is a unique child, almost feral in a way, and we spend a summer with her, the last summer of her childhood, getting to know her, as she learns there is more to life than shooting guns with her father and playing cribbage with her grandfather.


It has all the signs of a good book. It’s well written, the characters are rich and real, there is a distinct plot running through it with an ending that while satisfying doesn’t quite tie everything up in a neat fairy tale bow.


It’s an odd journey that Turtle goes on – at one point she manages to get herself stranded on an island at high tide and must survive there. It all becomes a bit Huckleberry Finn, which the characters themselves acknowledge.


The book is quite episodic in some respects, meaning it is easy to dip in and out of – which is a bit of a relief, since at times the themes it explores are pretty challenging.


So far, so good, it’s got all the signs of a good book, and if you were to ask me if it reminded me of any other books, I’d say yes. It made me think of Sal – a book published next year, which I really enjoyed – and it made me think of A Little Lifewhich most of you will know is my absolute favouritest book ever.


So it must be a good book then?


I can only answer yes.


But did I enjoy it?


I can only answer no.


For me, there was something missing from the book which stopped me from engaging with it properly. Looking back on it now, and when telling people about it, it’s tricky for me to put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy it.


I feel like I did enjoy it, I can find no reason why I didn’t, but when I was reading it, I was wishing it would end, that I could read something else. Something better.


And it’s not to do with the subject matter. Many other books that I love – particularly A Little Life – could be described as unrelentingly grim, but in those books I experienced emotions. I was moved.


With My Absolute Darling, I didn’t feel any of that. On paper, it ticks all the boxes, but in practice, it just didn’t connect.


And that’s the thing we’re all trying capture and stuff into a bottle. That something extra. The special combination of the right book and the right reader.


That little bit of magic can take even the worst of books and make it into an excellent book, but the best of books without that little bit of extra magic? It will never be better than good.




A(nother) Review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon #ThreeThings

I once had a conversation with someone who was absolutely furious when – in their view – someone on Twitter had spoiled a book for them, by revealing there was a twist. They hadn’t said what the twist was, just that a twist existed.


I’ve struggled with this concept ever since – I often expect there to be twists in most books I read – and finding out that one I was reading had one wouldn’t make me feel the book was spoilt. More of a teaser really.


Twists and turns are surely the components that drive the plot forward, something unexpected happening to keep the reader interested.


If I opened a book and it was utterly predictable, I knew exactly what was going to happen, would I enjoy it still? Maybe – after all, I do enjoy re-reading some books…


Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The reason I started talking about twists in the first place was because as something of a self-appointed expert of books, I can often see the twists coming.


The last time I was truly surprised by a twist was in I See You by Claire Mackintosh – I was so surprised, I had to put the book down for half an hour.


My difficulty is that I’m now not sure what is supposed to be a twist and what isn’t – and it is with all this preamble, that I finally come to this week’s book Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon – author of the massive The Trouble with Goats and Sheep.


Florence Claybourne has a flat in the grounds of the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly, and it is in this flat and this Home that the story is set. The eponymous Elsie is Florence’s best friend and as the title suggests, there are three things you need to know about her.


We don’t learn all three things at once, but we learn them as we go through the book, as Florence becomes spooked by the arrival of a new resident, a man who should be dead. A man who died over fifty years previously.


In Florence’s corner are Elsie and another resident, Jack, but working against Elsie is – seemingly – the man himself, and Florence’s own muddled memories.


I worked out the third thing about Elsie pretty early on. So early on, in fact, that I couldn’t work out if it was meant to be an obvious ‘twist’ or not. It made me constantly question myself as this ‘third thing’ became a bigger and bigger unspoken thing among all the characters. Perhaps I was wrong? Perhaps the twist was that this obvious thing was actually not as it seemed?


I decided to stop second guessing myself. And I’m so glad I did.


In this novel, Cannon deftly weaves together multiple strands and multiple layers of story to reach a climax that will leave even the most experienced reader surprised, even if only a little it. Even if you do predict the big twist about Elsie – if in fact there actually is one – there are so many more connections both subtle and obvious that you won’t see coming, that will keep you guessing right to the end.


Three Things About Elsie is a charming novel, exploring not just aging and dementia, but also the way our lives and our actions impact on others.


The obvious comparison is to Elizabeth is Missing, but Three Things About Elsie goes further than that. You feel you know Florence’s whole life, not just the diminished later stages of it. And ultimately, it becomes a story not amount dementia, but about the way we treat others around us. The aged, the bereaved and those passing acquaintances.


Events that are important to us, secrets we keep that become huge burdens, they’re nothing to other people. But some of our smallest interactions with someone can have a lasting effect that we may never truly understand.


So while I may not see it is important if I know about a twist in a book or not, there are clearly people out there who do care. So I’m not going to tell you any of the three things about Elsie, you’ll just have to read it for yourself.


And you’ll be glad you did. In January 2018, when it’s published by Borough Press.