Thursday, June 21, 2012

One Hell of a Scary Novel

I can honestly say I will never forget Gillian Flynn’s first novel “Sharp Objects,” an unbelievably terrifying, dark, harrowing, noir, crime/journalism thriller that I devoured over the course of two days. This is not your mama’s mystery. If this book does not haunt you, it’s quite probable that you are a psychopath and you should seek immediate help from a professional.

Camille is a reporter at a struggling Chicago paper, which doesn't have much money or name recognition. But a murder in Camille's hometown, Wind Gap, Missouri, gets the paper’s editor interested. It's the second murder in one small town, a town Camille fled and never went back to. Right away, the story starts off with a bang: Camille has to go back home to face her ghosts. Or, as the editor puts it, to "flesh some stuff out." Instantly, I’m drawn into this book.

This book wastes no time. Camille is back in Wind Gap by Chapter 2. She notes three businesses on the road into town that perfectly sum up the place: "tanning beds, a gun shop, a drapery store." This place is rough, but it also tries to mask its roughness. Wind Gap, Missouri, is indeed an odd place, which becomes more terrifying with each chapter. There's a mysterious history of violence in this town, and the locals seem to have come to some sort of macabre resolution that their town is just, well, crazy.

Camille stays with her mother, whom she refers to only as Adora, a lying, narcissistic head-case. Adora has another daughter (Camille’s half-sister) named Amma who is really something else. She’s thirteen, hyper-sexualized, needy for attention, deceptive, psychotic and totally unpredictable. All of this is swirling around with two murders that haven’t yet been solved. Both of the murder victims were young girls, both girls had their teeth pulled posthumously. There were no signs of sexual assault, which doesn’t fit the profile. A cop on loan from Kansas City may have a few leads, but if he does, he’s not letting Camille in on them.

What makes this crazy book great is that Camille's point of view is seamlessly believable. She is definitely the most interesting protagonist I’ve come across in months, maybe years. She's so complex and such an individual. She's got this old-fashioned toughness and this macho reporter angst matched with a fragile vulnerability. She drinks bourbon and eats peanuts while she writes. She becomes obsessed with the two dead girls, and makes an unwavering commitment to get to figure out what happened to them. On page 60, Camille finally admits to what I’d been expecting for a while: “I am a cutter. Also a snipper, a slicer, a carver, a jabber.” The reader learns she has a reason for never taking her clothes off in front of other people: she’s carved seemingly random words all over her entire body.

“I am a very special case,” she says of her self-mutilation. “I have a purpose.” That purpose? Documentation. “By eleven I was compulsively writing down everything anyone said to me in a tiny blue notepad, a mini reporter already. Every phrase had to be captured on paper or it wasn’t real, it slipped away.” Words like: vanish, whine, milk, hurt. She wears long sleeves all the time so no one can see the words she carves into herself. Camille also admits to being prone to "compulsive neatness," and it's this self-knowledge of her own psychological state that I find fascinating in this book. She both loves and hates her job, which rings true for any reporter. "Reporters are like vampires. They can't come into your home without your invitation, but once they're there, you won't get them out till they've sucked you dry."

Gillian Flynn writes beautifully about tragedy. I like the way Flynn refrains from the gimmick of italicizing her own thoughts. She just writes: "I thought X." It's the blunt prose of a journalist, and it really proves Flynn's craft in developing this narrator.

Without giving away the powerful, haunting ending, the book comes full circle in a spectacular way. This story is not just about solving the two murders, but about Camille discovering just what happened to her as a child, and how those events still control her life as an adult. She's a broken woman and, over the course of this novel, she breaks completely. And through her first-person narrative, the reader goes through the entire process.

Flynn is not only a master of language; her mastership of plot is truly incredible. The denouement competes with Agatha Christie's best. And the tension Flynn weaves into her prose reminds me of the best of Stephen King's writing. This is an unabashed thrilled, but a complex one, a thriller that slows down to note the color of the sky and takes time to develop the characters. Every major character is a conflicted, unpredictable, fully human person. There are no stock characters here. This is not an episode of C.S.I. Miami. This is a superbly crafted novel that speeds up the heart rate and teases the mind. I can’t really put it in a definitive genre, because it’s so risky and bold. The ending, though it comes after 200 pages of hell, is still something of an ending. It's all wrapped up in the end and every last detail explained, hence the reference to Agatha Christie. In addition to being scared out of my mind, the book still left me feeling fulfilled. Flynn’s ability to put all unanswered questions to rest at the end is superb. I recommend this book, but not to people who scare easily.

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