4 out of 4 stars
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Darling Girl is Terry H. Watkins’ debut novel. This delightful coming of age story falls into the Other Fiction genre and is told in the first-person perspective, through the eyes of Darling Girl, otherwise known as DG. DG’s story starts at the age of five and spans thirteen years.
This book is different from many novels I have read. Darling Girl does not provide the reader with a comprehensive account of DG’s life. Instead, it focuses on specific events deemed important to DG over the years. The narration is written from a child’s point of view and, as such, gives a child’s perspective about the events occurring within the family unit. The lack of analysis, insight and judgment is refreshing, particularly in the earlier years when, in keeping with her age, DG says it as she sees it.
DG’s father works in pipelining and, as a result, the family is constantly relocating. For DG, however, this is not the only instability she experiences. DG’s life is further complicated by both her mother’s mental health problems and her father’s increasingly controlling behaviour.
Darling Girl begins with DG’s ‘Gramma’ and ‘Grampa’ coming to collect her from vacation Bible school instead of her mother. Positive that her mother has gone to ‘pick out’ a new baby for their ever-growing family, DG is saddened to learn that this is not the case. Instead, she is told that her mother has gone away for a rest. While trying to comprehend what this means, DG is filled with immense sadness and, at times, feelings of guilt. Through DG’s eyes, we share the confusion and insecurities she feels when her mother goes away and the overwhelming happiness upon her mother’s return.
As DG grows older she gains understanding and insight into her mother’s multiple absences, recognising that her mother’s mental illness is the same as any physical illness except for the stigma attached to it. More importantly, DG starts to understand some of the factors which have exacerbated her mother’s mental illness over the years and soon learns that these factors are often more significant than the illness itself.
This book had many positive aspects. The story touched on several sensitive topics in quite a unique way. Subjects, including mental health, loss and domestic violence, were mostly mentioned in passing rather than being delved into or explicitly described. The author was successfully able to achieve this by telling the story from DG’s perspective. Since children have limited insight and understanding about such events, the comments DG made were observational statements only. The reader then had to use their own knowledge and life experiences to read between the lines and gain the deeper meaning behind DG’s words. I was impressed by the way the author managed to do this without minimising or trivialising the impact these events had on both DG and her family’s lives.
Aside from the obvious effectiveness of this writing style, I could see two additional advantages to the way this book was written. Firstly, it ensured that the story remained a predominantly light read. Secondly, it opened the book up to a wider audience since it made the book suitable for readers who generally have difficulty reading stories which contain graphic details.
I also really enjoyed many of the descriptions used throughout the book. The author appeared to have considered all five senses when writing this story and I felt this helped the reader share or relate to the experiences. There were a couple of descriptions that particularly moved me, especially when DG was referring to her Grampa. On one occasion DG was in her mother’s closet and her Grampa asked her if she was going to come out. She stated that she came out ‘…because it’s Grampa, and he is the safest place I know.’ I thought this was a beautiful way to describe their relationship. There were also many statements that made me chuckle and I really laughed at the list of etiquette DG was required to know so she could be deemed ready to go on her first shopping trip.
The editing of this book was outstanding. I looked very closely for errors since I reviewed this book prior to its release, the scheduled date being 2nd October 2018. It was virtually faultless. The spelling was particularly exceptional. On a couple of occasions, I thought I had located a grammatically incorrect sentence or a misspelt word, however, I soon discovered these were intentional and formed part of the various dialects the family encountered on their travels.
Additionally, a few of the sentences appeared excessively long but, after consideration, I realised that these were, in fact, written the way a child speaks. These sentences reflected the protagonist’s age, accurately depicting the rapid speech, excitement and sudden change in thoughts that normally accompany a child’s eager tale. I also noted that the author subtly changed the narration as the chapters progressed, ensuring the wording remained age-appropriate as DG matured. This happened so seamlessly that I did not even realise it had occurred until I had finished the book.
Overall, I only noticed one or two potential errors. I say potential as I was unsure whether they were oversights or not, however, they were obvious enough to stand out. Firstly, it appeared that the book was written in chronological order, spanning 1957 to 1970, however, one chapter deviated from this pattern. I noticed that Chapter 12 was set in 1962, Chapter 13 in 1963 and then Chapter 14 returned to 1962. Following this, the book, once again, continued in chronological order. Regardless, this did not alter the story in any way. The other thing I noticed was one incidence of repetition about how, when DG’s Granny starts arguing, it means she is ready to return to Aunt Odilia’s.
Finally, if I was to be really critical, the only aspect I felt could be improved was the ending of the book. The finish seemed a little bit abrupt and I found myself wanting to know more about what happened in DG’s future. While this was only a minor issue, I thought the addition of an epilogue may have helped the ending feel more complete.
In summary, this was a well-written novel which lightly touched on a variety of topics. The descriptions were wonderful. I laughed at some, felt empathy with others and reminisced with many. I had no hesitation rating this book 4 out of 4 stars. With virtually faultless editing, this story provided a light and easy read about topics which would usually be considered heavy. This book should appeal to readers who enjoy a very realistic and moving story without the inclusion of graphic content.
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