Monday, November 18, 2013

What I'm reading: Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

I just finished reading Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn:

WICKED above her hipbone, GIRL across her heart
Words are like a road map to reporter Camille Preaker’s troubled past. Fresh from a brief stay at a psych hospital, Camille’s first assignment from the second-rate daily paper where she works brings her reluctantly back to her hometown to cover the murders of two preteen girls. 
 NASTY on her kneecap, BABYDOLL on her legSince she left town eight years ago, Camille has hardly spoken to her neurotic, hypochondriac mother or to the half-sister she barely knows: a beautiful thirteen-year-old with an eerie grip on the town. Now, installed again in her family’s Victorian mansion, Camille is haunted by the childhood tragedy she has spent her whole life trying to cut from her memory.  
HARMFUL on her wrist, WHORE on her ankleAs Camille works to uncover the truth about these violent crimes, she finds herself identifying with the young victims—a bit too strongly. Clues keep leading to dead ends, forcing Camille to unravel the psychological puzzle of her own past to get at the story. Dogged by her own demons, Camille will have to confront what happened to her years before if she wants to survive this homecoming. With its taut, crafted writing, Sharp Objects is addictive, haunting, and unforgettable.
Sharp Objects might best be described as Southern Gothic fiction, if you had to fit it into a genre. However, there is nothing quaint or old-fashioned about it. Among the three books that Flynn has written so far, this one is definitely the edgiest. 

Sharp Objects contains a plethora of dark characters--starting with the lead character herself, who is described in the promotional blurb above. 

Camille Preaker is difficult to like in some ways--almost every way, in fact: She has issues with alcohol and other forms of substance abuse. She's also a "cutter"(a malady that I have frankly always had difficulty relating to). And, of course, she is prone to bouts of depression and brooding.

But we soon find out why Camille is such a mess. Her mother, Adora, is a cold, distant woman who has bizarre notions about parenting. From the very beginning, we know that there is something definitely "not right" with Adora. 

And then there's the town of Wind Gap: Flynn capitalizes on the meme of the American-small town-that-hides-unspeakable-secrets. Wind Gap's sheriff is unhelpful and oddly detached about the murders. The town's adults are mostly neurotic, while the kids are an odd assortment of victims and victimizers.

Camille's adolescent half sister, Amma, is a mixture of adolescent sexuality, cruelty, and vulnerability. Flynn--who is never afraid of pushing the envelope in her novels--creates in Amma a young girl who wavers between confused innocence and calculated scheming--often with sexual overtones. 

There is also a long-dead sister in the background--one who succumbed to a mysterious illness when Camille was herself a girl. But what--or who--really killed her?

*   *   *

Quick review: As I've noted before, I'm a fan of Gillian Flynn's work; and I found Sharp Objects to be an entertaining read. Flynn has a knack for creating characters that are both sinister and believable, deeply flawed yet functional within the context of her stories. 

That having been said, Sharp Objects won't be for everyone. Camille Preaker is no Harry Bosch (the recurring LAPD detective in Michael Connelly's novels). Although there are perfectly plausible reasons for Camille's psychological issues, that didn't stop me from losing patience with her at  numerous points in the story. I like lead characters that I can admire at least a little bit; and I could never quite bring myself to see anything admirable about Camille Preaker. She is definitely a "head case".

As I've hinted above, Gillian Flynn doesn't shrink from dark sexual themes. What follows isn't a complaint about feminism in fiction (Flynn never gets on a feminist soapbox when she writes; quite the opposite in fact); but a male author could not have gotten away with the character of Amma. She's very sexual at a very young age; and that is oddly juxtaposed with a thirteen-year-old's innocence. I'm not squeamish about that sort of thing; but Amma is a character who will make some readers distinctly uncomfortable. You've been warned.

The solution to the novel's mystery (who is killing the young girls?) is somewhat predictable, and you see it coming within the last fifty pages of the book. This doesn't make it less compelling to read, though, as Flynn deftly saves a few unexpected twists for the final pages. 

Sharp Objects is a book that will appeal to readers who enjoyed the recently released movie PrisonersReaders who like strong, likable heroes--and those who are easily depressed--may want to choose something else. 

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