Friday, March 27, 2015

Review: "Sharp Objects" by Gillian Flynn

Police reporter Camille Preaker would rather die than return to her troubled mother's house. But a string of murders in little Wind Gap has caught the attention of the struggling Chicago paper where she works. Her boss is convinced this will be the big break Camille--and his paper--needs. Against her better judgment, she follows the story home to a house that hasn't been on speaking terms with the truth for a long, long time.

Everyone says that Wind Gap is a tranquil, pleasant place. Camille, with scars on her arms and a dead sister of her own in the ground, remembers differently. Likewise, everyone says that the two missing children were innocent angels taken before their time. The ugly truth will shatter the polite, agreed-upon fictions of the town--if Camille doesn't self-destruct before putting the words on paper.


Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn (2006)
5 out of 5 stars

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 5/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: murder, drug use, child sexual abuse, self-harm, suicide, medical abuse, graphic imagery
Overall Response: I wonder if Gillian Flynn stole Jodi Picoult's ability to write an ending, because Flynn's are good enough for two novelists.


More Thoughts: Blockbuster hit Gone Girl isn't author Gillian Flynn's only triumph. Sharp Objects, her 2006 debut, is a masterpiece all its own. Forgive me if I refer back to the former frequently as I review the latter.

In Gone Girl, the massive knot of lies is coupled with a great deal of truth about love and marriage, and how people change to suit one another (not always for the best.) The book is about far more than a missing wife. It is a tricky and expansive tale.

In contrast, Sharp Objects is a gut-wrenchingly intimate one. It narrows its eyes where Gone Girl widened them, focusing on the dark terrible heart of Camille's childhood. The mystery is deeply personal to her. The dead children were schoolmates of her baby sister. The neighbors she pumps for pithy quotes are her own former friends, grown up, grown resentful. The specter of Camille's own dead sister hangs over her the entire time, growing more tangible every day.

Camille means to be detached, but it proves impossible. She's not a detective. She isn't here to solve anything--only to get good quotes and drum up some media attention. But who wouldn't want to know who the killer is? (And then, suddenly, you don't want to know after all. Too late!)

If you'll permit me to wax metaphorical, dear reader, Gone Girl was like sinking into a warm bath with your eyes closed, then suddenly opening them and finding that the drain has backed up and you're floating in sewage. Sharp Objects is the ironic opposite. The story is more overtly sordid, more violent, more ghastly--but I ached for the characters, instead of being repelled.

Camille is truly not a well person, not sound, in ways that are both distractingly obvious (sipping vodka before even getting out of bed in the morning) and deceptively understated (the haunting words she has physically carved onto her body). She makes awful choices. This is a story about a woman who lets her baby sister supply her with Ecstasy! However, Flynn has characterized her with such rich compassion that the reader understands exactly why she does so.

Flynn doesn't do so well with Amma, Camille's (surviving) younger sister. Most of Amma's dialogue is unreadably false. No thirteen-year-old speaks like Amma, even one driven to the brink by a controlling mother. Amma's actions may play right, but she sounds wrong.

That said, one of the triumphs of the book is how well Flynn gets the reader to care about this loathsome child. Again, it is Camille's flawed but empathetic perspective that enables this. As Camille starts to pity her bizarre, bullying, out-of-control sister, so does the reader. As the bond grows, so does the fear--because Amma is likely on the killer's to-do list.

Overall, Flynn's writing is superb. With Camille, she breaks from the curse of generic sameness suffered by so many first-person narrators. From a purely technical standpoint, she has a remarkably way with words. Her sentences are full of punch (both the fizzy-drink sort and the black-eye variety.) A few gems which can be safely stripped of context:
  • Curry's office is on the third floor. I'm sure he gets panicky-pissed every time he looks out the window and sees the trunk of a tree. Good editors don't see bark, they see leaves.
  • Alan refolded the cuffs of his sweater. His contribution to our conversations generally came in the form of adjustments: a collar tucked in, a leg recrossed.
  • Angie's house looked like a child's drawing of a mansion: It was so generic it was barely three-dimensional.
Most of the novel's content warnings speak for themselves. It's a story about finding dead children with their teeth pulled out; the narrator is an alcoholic cutter with a history of sexual abuse. For better or for worse, we readers are rather inured to such things. Standard fare for a mystery-thriller.

Let me issue a specific and less obvious warning: Camille's mother is emotionally abusive in vicious and insidious ways. This is a mother who opens conversations with statements like "I finally realized why I don't love you," then ends them with recriminations about how hatefully Camille is behaving. That upset me far worse than the usual trappings of murder.

In contrast, Camille's shockingly positive relationship with her boss was a surprise and a delight. Curry is set up to be a stock Gruff Newsman, but over time, Flynn reveals that he is Camille's major source of support.
"You've got to take care of yourself. I thought being home might do you good, but... I forget sometimes parents aren't always... good for their kids."
"Whenever I'm here," I stopped, tried to pull it together. "I just always feel like I'm a bad person when I'm here." Then I started crying, silent sobbing as Curry stammered on the other end. I could picture him panicking, waving his wife over to handle this weeping girl. But no.
"Ohhh, Camille," he whispered. "You are one of the most decent people I know. And there aren't that many decent people in the world, you know?"
"I'm not decent." The tip of my pen was scribbling deep, scratchy words into my thigh. Wrong, woman, teeth.
"Camille, you are. I see how you treat people, even the most worthless pieces of crap I can think of. You give them some... dignity. Understanding. Why do you think I keep you around? Not because you're a great reporter."
I reveled in the ending. I won't spoil it for you. Recall that I was repulsed by Gone Girl until the final pages. Sharp Objects ran no such risks of losing my attention or my investment, and its conclusion was even more perfect, if perfection can be doubled. Like feeling better after throwing up, after a long queasiness. I closed the book both disturbed and consoled.

Between Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn is two for two. I would say she has earned her praise. I look forward to reading her third novel, Dark Places, and any more she cares to publish--however horrifying they will inevitably be.

I think I have Amanda or Tyler to thank for this book rec, but my brain is soft like pudding after a week at work. The credit is yours if you would like it!

1 comment:

  1. I am so intrigued by this review - I personally am a bit terrified to delve into Flynn's works, given my response to Gone Girl, but your review alone has sold me on it!