Monday, June 18, 2007

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Hands down, the darkest book that I've read since, um, I don't know. This may very well be the darkest book I've ever read. I mean, Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot scared the shit out of me, and I still have the occasional nightmare about my best friends turning into vampires and levitating outside the window of my fourth floor apt. window, but here's the thing: there are no vampires in Sharp Objects. Nothing supernatural. It's real. And really disturbing.

Naturally, being a drawn-to-the-dark-side kind of girl, I absolutely loved this book. It didn't quite give me nightmares, but I had very vivid and creepy dreams while I was reading it. Flynn creates such a strong sense of atmosphere that it's jarring to put the book down and realize that you're wedged in a > 600 square foot apartment, don't have a gorgeous and cruel ice-queen mother or word scars cut all over your skin, and aren't a chronic bourbon drinker.*

The voice is spare and honest, and the characters are shamelessly fucked up. There are no good people in this book. Well, I suppose I should say that there are no good women. Flynn admits to adoring evil stepmothers and wicked queens from the Brothers Grimm, and casually confesses that she was not a nice little girl. She's set out to write a story about female violence, and the uniquely destructive relationships between women - a type of viciousness that is wholly feminine. Here's an excerpt from the novel that doesn't quite make that point, but gives a sharp piece of insight nonetheless:

"Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed. Not surprising, considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman's body experiences. Tampons and speculums. Cocks, fingers, vibrators and more, between the legs, from behind, in the mouth. Consumed. Men love to put things inside women, don't they? Cucumbers and bananas and bottles, a string of pearls, a Magic Marker, a fist. Once a guy wanted to wedge a telephone receiver inside of me. I declined."

Flynn's main character, Camille Preaker, is a cutter who cuts words into her skin like cherry, virgin, cunt, yelp. She can feel certain words pulse on her skin depending on circumstance and mood - words like punish, wicked, lipstick. She's been a cutter so long, and with such ferocity, that the only clear spot left on her body (other than her face) is a small unmarked circle in the center of her back where she can't reach with a blade.

At the start, Camille is called back to her small home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, when her boss at a Chicago newspaper asks her to report on the murder of one nine-year-old girl, and the disappearance of another. Shortly after Camille comes to town the second girl is found. Both girls had been strangled, had their teeth pulled out, and then arranged lovingly to be found (lip gloss applied, hair brushed, eyebrows plucked). Camille hasn't been back to Wind Gap in over eight years. Needless to say, her homecoming stirs up a lot of memories (not the least of which is the death of her younger sister when Camille was eighteen) and strains her extremely disfuctional relationship with her mother.

The town of Wind Gap is best summed up on page 74:

"I didn't mind the idea of spilling Wind Gap's stories to Richard [out of town cop character]. I felt no particular allegiance to the town. This was the place my sister died, the place I started cutting myself. A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It's the kind of place that leaves a mark."

Overall, Stephen King put it best in his blurb: "...Then, after the lights were out, the story just stayed there in my head, coiled and hissing, like a snake in a cave. An admirably nasty piece of work, elevated by sharp writing and sharper insights."

Over two months after I read it, Sharp Objects is still "coiled and hissing" in my head. This is an extremely powerful book that I'd recommend to anyone who likes their fiction dark and thoughtful.** And NASTY.


*Actually, this book played a key role in kicking off my love affair with Woodford Reserve.
**In case you're one of those readers wondering what I mean by Literary Mysteries, this would be one. Not only is the writing great, but Sharp Objects deals with a lot of serious social issues, along with other fascinating issues.

PS - I picked this book up at BEA 2006, and it took me almost a year to realize what's on the cover - an old school razor blade! (No, I have no idea what I thought it was....some Rorschach thing?)

PSS - If reading Nineteen Minutes made you never ever want to have sons, Sharp Objects will make you never want to have daughters.

5 comments:

FaeEnsorcelled said...

I finally started reading this book. I admit, I was a little wary. That which fascinates me also scares me, especially dissecting the motivation for violence against women.

I'm about 80 pages in, and would be finished, if not for stupid things like work and sleep getting in the way. Once I started it, I literally couldn't put it down until forced to.

I've heard books constantly referred to as "page turners," but they rarely live up to the phrase in the way Sharp Objects has. I'm ADDICTED. I started it yesterday, went to bed with it on my mind and woke up thinking about it. And I keep thinking about it. I think it's haunting me.

The funny thing is, so far, what keeps plagueing me isn't the description of the dead little girls. Rather, it's the dynamic of characters in the small town, especially the story of Faye "Fag" Murray, who felt she had to sleep with all the boys in school to prove she wasn't a lesbian, and afterward, they wouldn't touch her after anyway. Ugh. Horrifying, yet sadly believable.

I have a few theories so far. I think maybe Marion, the dead sister, isn't really dead, but was somehow kept by the mother in secret, kind of Flowers-In-the-Attic style. But this could be a false lead.

Will report back when I finish. :) Thanks for revewing this book!

FaeEnsorcelled said...

First of all, let me say, I really enjoyed this book, even the parts that made this 10-year vegetarian strongly consider veganism (due to the pig farm descriptions). Sharp Objects is an amazing first novel. I think, in about a year or so, I will definitely reread it, and be just as disturbed as the first time!

HOWEVER. I have to say, I was disappointed with the ending. This isn't exactly a spoiler, because I'm not going to say what happens, but I am going to discuss who DIDN'T do it, so if you are reading this and plan to read the book, I would advise you stop reading now. :)

I think that, although there was a little twist at the end, it wasn't at all surprising. I expected it. The two people who I thought were the most obvious suspects ended up being the two who WERE guilty, though one of them was guilty of something else (MBP.)

So, since you are the only person I know who's read this book, I will tell you how I wanted it to end, using clues that were actually in the book.

The little sister who died, Marion, didn't actually die. Rather, she became aware that Adora was making her sick, and threatened to expose Adora to the community. So, having at her disposal horse tranquilizers, Adora faked Marion's death.

At the beginning of the book, Camille goes out of her way to tell the reader how big Adora's house is, giving one the sense that many of its rooms are probably never used. This gives Adora the perfect place to hide Marion. Maybe she hid her in a basement or attic. Either way, Marion lives on, though Camille believes, having seen her passed out on horse tranqs, that she is dead.

THIS is why Camille tells the reader she thinks Marion was buried in one color dress, and Adora insists she was buried in another. The burial was actually closed-coffin, but Camille's devastated mind distorted this. And rich Adora certainly had the means to pay someone to fake a funeral.

The little boy who saw Natalie taken says she is taken by an old woman who looked like she'd never seen the light of the sun. This is because Marion, locked up in the house, HASN'T seen the sun in over a decade.

So. Marion breaks out of the house and wants to make a run for it. She kills the little girls out of jealousy, feeling she has been replaced by them in her mother's eyes. She takes the first set of teeth for one of two reasons.
One, she wants to put an actual body in her grave, and she wants it to have her teeth, so no one can prove she didn't die. So she switches them.
Two, she wants to put the dead girl's teeth in her mouth, so she can never be tracked down (she has an unnatural fear of Adora.)
However, Amma discovers her sister's secret and steals the first batch of teeth, forcing Marion to kill again.

All of this is discovered after cop Richard tells Camille they will have to check Marion for traces of poison (he says this in the actual book.)

They dig her up, find no body, and it all unravels.

So there it is. Outlandish, maybe, but it could have absolutely worked with all the clues. Thoughts?

Book Cannibal said...

Whoa. What's crazy is that I think that your ending *could* have worked! It is pretty outlandish, though gothic in a way that fits with the novel - a pale sickly sister locked up in the big mansion of a house... very Edgar Allen Poe, no?

However, would Adora really keep her alive? Wouldn't she not be able to keep herself from continuing to care for/poison her?

Just so you know, I totally thought something creepy like that was going to happen with Marion, like she wouldn't end up being dead, or would have died from some really creepy something. Because Camille isn't the most reliable of narrators, I could almost see her having made up Marion's death, or cause of death.

I'm glad you liked the book so much - a friend of mine just read it, and was completely hooked all the way through. I do think you've put your finger on its one weakness as a mystery - lack of suspects. It's a tough call though, because to introduce more suspects, the author would have lost the tightness of the story, and the overwhelming atmosphere, that sense that you can just feel the walls closing in on Camille. So maybe she weighed lack of suspects / red herrings against losing the sense of creepy isolation?

FaeEnsorcelled said...

I think the best way to put it is, as a mystery I liked the book, but as a novel I loved it, because the book itself was great, but didn't surprise me much in the end.

"However, would Adora really keep her alive? Wouldn't she not be able to keep herself from continuing to care for/poison her?"

As far as this goes, I think Adora would keep Marion alive because, even in the real version, she didn't MEAN to kill her. She just *couldn't stop* poisoning her. I don't even know if she thought what she was doing was bad/harmful.

As for your second question, she poisoned Marion for the attention, so if Marion were locked away, keeping her ill wouldn't bring Adora any attention.

There it is. I love a dark, dastardly twist. Maybe it comes from knowing that so many perfectly polished families have hideous skeletons in their closets. Or maybe it's because I read a lot of Christopher Pike in my youth. A LOT.

Book Cannibal said...

I LOVED Christopher Pike! His books scared me just as much as Stephen King books do now. I think I read everything he wrote.