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.

 

 

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A(nother) Review: Sal by Mick Kitson

It’s that glorious time of the year for people in the business that is books… no, not my birthday, or the re-stocking of titles that are going onto the school reading lists for the next term.

 

No, better than that, publishers are starting to send out the first proofs of new books coming in 2018. Happy August!

 

Of course, I’ve already had a couple, notably Fear and White Bodies – and though I enjoyed both, this latest is probably my favourite. So far.

 

Sal has run away with her sister Peppa to live in the woods. She had planned her escape to get away from her mother’s abusive boyfriend for nearly a year, and we slowly learn how and more importantly why she planned this escape.

 

Sal is not a long novel, at just over two hundred pages long, however that is no bad thing. Our eponymous heroine drags us straight into the narrative with incredibly engaging descriptions of how she and her sister even begin to survive.

 

We’ve all listened to Desert Island Discs – A current obsession of mine, I’m not the only one who’s listening to everything in the archive am I? – and one of the questions original host Roy Plomley asked each guest was whether they would be able to survive on a desert island.

 

I am probably not alone in thinking that I would be able to give it a good go. I’m not deluded enough to think I’ll be the next Robinson Crusoe, however I’d lay money on lasting longer than the average.

 

And then I read Sal.

 

Thirteen year old Sal has been planning this for a year, and she’s very good, but, gosh is it complicated. She knows things that I wouldn’t have a clue about.

 

Turns out, living on my own in the wild, I would have likely died of some kind of infection fairly soon. However, I’m now confident I might last a day longer than I would have done previously.

 

This isn’t about me, though, it’s about how Sal and Peppa survive – and how long they survive.

 

Despite some of the subject matter, this is a very easy read, one that pulls you into the story, turning each page until you suddenly realise you’ve ready fifty pages more than you were intending to.

 

It’s all slightly implausible, but at the same time utterly believable – with the drama surrounding the two missing girls happening on the periphery of our attention.  This isn’t a book about the plot, though, it’s about the characters, how they grow when left in the wilds of Scotland away from all civilisation.

 

Sal and Peppa are two great characters, managing to swerve the trap of becoming annoying know-it-alls as characters of their age (thirteen and ten) are wont to be – however it is the elder character Ingrid, who comes complete with her own fascinating backstory that really grabs the attention.

 

While it might be possible to suspend disbelief that Sal and Peppa have managed to survive a day or two in the wild, Ingrid has been there years – and through learning her story, I’m more than willing to bet she probably has. Heck, she’s probably still out there somewhere.

 

Sal probably won’t end up being my favourite book of 2018, but I suspect it will make a few people’s top tens quite easily – and I will certainly be packing it as my book to take to that desert island, if only to help me survive an extra day or two.

Sal will be published by Canongate in early 2018