My first Gillian Flynn was appropriately Gone Girl, and I’d heard a lot about her first two smashing novels, Sharp Objects and Dark Places, so I recently took a weekend and read these novels almost in one sitting each, which is fabulous and also I couldn’t sleep for like four days, because holy mother of pearl, this book was a nail-biter. It’s a classic whodunit with no small measure of psychological mind-effing thrown in just to make you second-guess both your sanity and your humanity.
Sharp Objects is elegantly plotted and succinct. Camille Preaker is a second-rate journalist at a failing Chicago newspaper sent down to her Missouri hometown to investigate what seems to be a serial killer. Two girls have been murdered within a year’s time. Both girls were feisty, mischievous middle-schoolers, and both were found with all their teeth pulled out.
That detail alone was enough to make me cringe. Gillian Flynn has a knack for making singular gory details vivid and endlessly disturbing. Camille is a troubled thirty-something whose rich mother never loved her. Going home to investigate the murders has made Camille face her own demons, the biggest of which is that she is a cutter. But instead of lines on her wrist, Camille cuts deep words all over her body. Her whole body is therefore covered in gleaming white scars that spell over a decade’s worth of self-harm and self-loathing.
Camille also has to bond with her beautiful and cruel younger sister, the thirteen-year-old Amma. Their family structure includes a neglectful, controlling mother, a wild and ferocious teenage girl, and Camille’s younger sister, who died at ten years old. Camille’s investigation becomes personal very quickly, forcing her to confront her own humanity.
“Camille?” Her voice quiet and girlish and unsure. “You know how people sometimes say they have to hurt because if they don’t, they’re so numb they won’t feel anything?”
“What if it’s the opposite?” Amma whispered. “What if you hurt because it feels so good? Like you have a tingling, like someone left a switch on in your body. And nothing can turn that switch off except hurting? What does that mean?”
So much of this book plays on your own sense of humanity. It seems to suggest that there is something bestial, demonic and evil within all of us, and that our basest instincts may always be lurking just below the surface. It’s deeply unhealthy because it almost feels true, this idea that maybe we are all capable of horrible acts of violence, that it’s normal for humans to maim, abuse, control, and kill.
It’s deeply unsettling, but it’s almost a triumphant piece of fiction because it is so powerful and disturbing. As gross and nasty as this book is, it also achieves elegance and beauty, and that truly frightens me.