Sharp Objects – Gillian Flynn
Those of you who’ve heard of Gillian Flynn will probably know her as the author of the popular thriller Gone Girl. I read and was amazed by it a year and a half ago, and read another of her novels, Dark Places (which is being adapted into a Charlize Thereon film), shortly afterward. I received Sharp Objects for Christmas from my sister, and I read it in a day. I couldn’t put it down.
Sharp Objects is about an reporter who returns to her hometown to investigate the murder of two young girls. Like most of Flynn’s protagonists (all, in fact, except arguably Amy Dunne), Camille Preaker has had a somewhat disturbed and traumatic childhood, with the death of her younger sister and a history of self-harm. Her relationship with her parents is difficult to say the least, and home seems to contain nothing but bad memories.
So how does Sharp Objects differ from Flynn’s other works? (I won’t say ‘previous’, as it’s actually her first novel.) There are some common themes: difficult parental relationships, childhood trauma, signs of alcohol dependency and a character returning from a big city to suburban Middle America. Like most writers, Flynn’s work has characteristic common themes, but that doesn’t mean all three novels are the same. There’s a sickness at the heart of the Preaker family about which I’ve never previously read in any literature, for one. Although the nature of the crime may at first seem similar to Dark Places, it occurs for vastly different reasons. The focus of Sharp Objects is far more upon familial relationships than romantic ones, and the focus on personal history is altered; it’s all about returning to somewhere that haunts you, rather than merely recalling memories. The characters of this novel are equally as interesting and twisted as those in Gone Girl, but they’re also vastly different. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call Sharp Objects more disturbing than GG.
A lot of people trash thrillers as lowbrow fiction, but Flynn’s work is very clever. Twists and turns are what she’s good at, and her writing style is so easy yet engaging that you really get that “just one more chapter” feel. Her depictions of mental illness, marriage, teenage behaviour and family life are insightful and very believable; she’s had to deny accusations that some of her work is autobiographical, so close to the mark is her writing. You plunge right into the twisted world she creates, and you lap it up.
What I love about this novel is the clever way Flynn makes us realise things. Camille puts together the pieces and slowly, almost unconsciously, becomes aware of some unpleasant family truths and Flynn’s skilled, subtle reveal means that we become gradually aware in the same way the protagonist does. I also enjoy that the twists and turns keep going until the last minute- just as you think everything’s sorted, it’s all turned on its head once more. I finished the novel with that ‘mind blown!‘ feeling I love so much, that Gone Girl delivered but Dark Places didn’t quite.
If there’s one criticism I have to make, it’s the way Flynn tries to make self-harm seem artistic, even romantic, at times. Camille carves words into her body, something which I have never heard of a self-harmer doing, although I am far from an expert on the topic and could be wrong about this. Her reason for cutting certainly seems profoundly unrealistic: trying to ‘trap the words’, rather than an outlet for personal pain, a way of feeling something or of taking control (although, to be fair, one could argue that these other reasons are implied). Trying to ‘trap the words’ and feel them wasn’t credible, and seemed like an attempt to be poetic and profound. Camille even as a sexual experience where a man ‘reads’ her, and it comes off as a twistedly romantic encounter. Not only was this a dubious way of tackling a sensitive and important issue, from a literary point of view I also felt that it was rather heavy-handed.
In general, however, Sharp Objects is a fantastically addictive book; I can’t decide whether or not I prefer it to Gone Girl. I didn’t leave the house all day and read it in under twelve hours. I have no regrets.