15 March 2014

Books: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn (2009)

In Dark Places, Gillian Flynn’s follow-up to her harrowing Sharp Objects, she gives us another highly dysfunctional woman and family. And in many ways an even stronger book than her first, but its way overlong and pulls a bizarre twist ending that sort of defies believability. 

The story fluctuates between present and the past. Libby Day is a 31 year-old woman, who at the age of seven survived an attack on her house that left her Mother Patty, sisters Debby and Michelle, dead. Her older brother, Ben, a sullen, depressive teenager at the time, is convicted of their murders and sent to prison for the rest of his life. In the present, Libby has reached a point –now 24 years later- where interest in her family’s death has waned. She’s become petulant, mean (which she admits in the opening paragraph) and has never gotten over her sticky-finger problem (which is good, as that plays out in the end). She is also nearly broke, having gone through the $300,000 that was donated to her after the tragic murders. But happenstance (and only in novels, TV and films does this happen) comes in the form of man called Lyle, who is a huge fan of true crime stories and belongs to a group called the Kill Club, basically an underground convention for folks who watch way too much real crime shows and books, and who believe Ben is innocent of the crime. He offers her money in hopes she’ll attend a gathering of folks whom believe in her brothers innocence if she can provide information (and family mementos) to understand what led up to the murders, including getting in contact with her father, Runner, who has vanished. 

The other part of the book is a detailed look into the day of Libby’s family murders. Here we see Patty as a single mother of four, losing her family farm to foreclosure, trying (and yet not) to feed her kids, keep the peace between all of them (which she fails at miserably) and keep former husband Runner Day away from them. But like a bad penny, he reappears at the worst time, and Ben, in need of a father figure, finds his lost parent not that helpful, which forces the 15 year-old into a world he is not prepared to deal with.  

Much like Sharp Objects, the premise of Dark Places is hardly original –I would venture to say its premise comes from a much earlier time in history, in particularly the nior books of the 1950s and 60s where authors fictionalized real events (like Truman Captoe’s In Cold Blood). But Flynn is a strong writer, with a great prose style and a desire, and appears not to care that she's not to made anyone of her characters remotely likable. And Libby, much like Camille in Sharp Objects, has a distant personality and Flynn seems to take pleasure in knowing her readers will find it quite difficult to like this main protagonist. 

It’s an emotionally draining novel as well. Nothing seems to go right for anyone. While the Day family seems particularly cursed (to a point I felt, at times, was a bit ridiculous), the folks caught in their wake all have personal demons and destructive personalities. Also, I feel the darkness that Flynn want's to evoke goes on way too long and made me ponder just how much more shit she was going to pile onto all of her characters, but in particular brother Ben and mother Patty. I could've done with less.

While Flynn did set up early the possibility that Ben was not the killer, the reveal was silly, and really out of nowhere (again, shades of Agatha Christie). And then there is the issue with coincidence that really pissed me off (though again, only in novels, TV and movies would this happen). Though, in some reflection, perhaps the mystery aspect was not important. Perhaps it was just a cover for readers who want to feel good about themselves that they don’t lead such a horrible life.

I still want to read Gone Girl, but I think I’ll wait a bit. Back to back nihilistic novels about broken people have made me feel a bit depleted.  

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