I’ve read Gillian Flynn’s body of work in reverse. I first became aware of her when everyone was reading Gone Girl, so I jumped on the bandwagon and tore through that novel like the suspenseful page-turner that it is. Next I read Dark Places, and in some ways I liked it even more, with its dark, In Cold Blood feel, though at times I felt like Flynn piled on the disfunction a bit too heavily. “How much more can this family go through?” I remember thinking. Finally, I’ve read her first novel, Sharp Objects, and holy cow, I now appreciate how much restraint Flynn has learned over the course of her short career.
Sharp Objects is the story of Camilla Preaker, a journalist for a second-rate Chicago-area newspaper sent back to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate a series of child murders. Flynn establishes this premise right away, so you know what you are getting into as a reader “Child murders,” you may think, “well it can’t get much darker than that.” You’d be wrong, though, because it does in fact get much weirder and more disturbing. Camilla herself is deeply troubled, having spent time in a psychiatric hospital for her own psychological issues, which include self-injury. As I met the other characters in the novel, like Camilla’s domineering mother Adora, her distant step-father, and her half-sister Amma, the town’s precocious alpha-teen, I started to wish that Camilla would just run back to Chicago, even if it meant losing her job, because nothing good could possibly come of any encounter with these people.
Let me be clear that I appreciated this novel. I can’t quite bring myself to say “enjoyed” because at times it made me feel physically ill—not because of the child murders, or the promiscuity (sex, drugs, drinking) displayed by the barely-pubescent teenagers, though indeed those aspects were cringe-worthy. What sickened me was having to watch the protagonist self-destruct. Each time she took another drink or contemplated the damage she had inflicted upon her body I shuddered. Self-loathing is difficult to witness, and that’s the power of this novel: behind the mystery of the killings is an unflinching look at one woman’s self-destruction.
Flynn can write page turners, that’s certain, and she has a knack for looking ugliness in the eye. I’m curious to see where her novels take us next, as she learns to harness those talents and give us stories that are both compelling and restrained.