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.