Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gillian Flynn, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting, USA

‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn


Fiction – Kindle edition; Phoenix; 340 pages; 2009.

I recently took a couple of days off work in order to do some study for a certificate I’m enrolled in. The plan was to read lots of journal articles, to get my head in the required space, so that I could write a 3,000-word essay, which is due to be submitted at the beginning of August. Alas, I made the mistake of picking up Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects — and then I got so gripped by it that I spent all my study time reading it instead of doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Do I regret it? No. This is one of the creepiest, weirdest and most unusual books I’ve read in a long while. It’s also the most absorbing.

Unlike Flynn’s better known Gone Girl, which is about a couple whose marriage goes off the rails in a very dark, disturbing and ludicrous way, this one is more restrained — in prose style and plot — but feels all the stronger and more believable for it.

Two murders in a small town

The story revolves around the murder of two young girls, a year apart, in a small town in Missouri. Both girls were strangled, their bodies dumped in public places, their nails painted with polish and their teeth removed.

Reporter Camille Preaker, who grew up in Wind Gap but escaped it 10 or so years ago, is dispatched to her home town to report on the crimes for Chicago’s Daily Post. Of course, no one wants to talk to her — they don’t want the town’s tragedy turned into entertainment fodder for a national audience — and it’s an uphill struggle to even win the trust of the police.

Camille, who narrates the story in the first person using strong, forthright language, is headstrong, feisty and full of attitude, but she’s also got a few secrets of her own to keep: she’s a reformed self-harmer and for much of this novel she’s constantly battling her deep psychological need to carve words into her skin.

It doesn’t help that living back at home with her seriously kooky mother, oddly quiet step-dad and highly sexualised 13-year-old half sister brings back memories of the past: her younger sister, Marian, who died of an unspecified illness when Camille was a young teen still haunts her.

Southern Gothic

As you can probably tell this is not your average “who dunnit” — mainly because it’s more reliant on characterisation than plot, but also because Camille is constantly on the back foot trying to seek out clues from people who don’t want to help. In other words, there’s not much of a procedural element to it, but it is a good insight into how reporters do their legwork (although I don’t think it’s usual to sleep with the murder detective and then the prime suspect — just saying).

In fact, I’d suggest that Sharp Objects is probably closer to horror — don’t let that put you off — because it has all the feel and claustrophobic atmosphere of Southern Gothic (even though it’s set in the mid-west),  something Donna Tartt might have cooked up with Stephen King. Consequently, it’s quite a dark, edgy read — there are scenes involving drug-taking and plenty of sex, for instance, but it’s all in keeping with the book’s themes and subject matter.

And while this is not the kind of “crime thriller” that is full of twists and turns, when the culprit is finally unveiled at the very end of the novel it feels like a genuine shock.

In 2007, Sharp Objects won the CWA New Blood Fiction award and the CWA Ian Fleming Steel award. It was shortlisted for the Gold Dagger (won by Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore) the same year.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Gillian Flynn, Publisher, Setting, USA, Weidenfeld & Nicolson

‘Gone Girl’ by Gillian Flynn


Fiction – hardcover; Weidenfeld & Nicolson; 416 pages; 2012.

Gillian Flynn‘s Gone Girl is one of those much-hyped books that I wasn’t sure I would like. Hence, I borrowed it from the library instead of forking out £10 for the hardcover edition. (The paperback isn’t released in the UK until next March.)

Admittedly, I wasn’t impressed when I first began reading it — it felt overwritten, too preppy and unconvincing. But when I asked the good people of Twitter whether I should continue reading, I received an avalanche of replies, mostly in the affirmative.

And I’m happy to report that I am glad I persevered. The book might not be perfect — indeed, it’s completely ludicrous in places — but it’s an enjoyable romp, with plenty of (unexpected) sharp left and right turns in the plot and a story arc that is far from conventional. In short, this is a fun, suspense-filled read.

A perfect couple

The story revolves around a seemingly perfect 30-something loved-up couple — Nick and Amy Dunne — who both lose their magazine jobs in Manhattan within a few months of each other. They move out west, to Nick’s home town in Missouri, to start afresh. Nick sets up a bar with his twin sister, Margo, and helps out his parents, both of whom are ill (his mother has cancer; his father Alzheimer’s), while Amy, who is independently wealthy, stays at home and does not very much at all.

On the surface, the couple appear happy, but behind closed doors all is not well.  And when Amy goes missing on the morning of the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary police suspicion falls on the emotionally disconnected Nick. But did he really kill his wife? And if he did so, what was the motive? And what did he do with the body?

Over the ensuing 400-plus pages, the reader is taken on a rather surreal roller-coaster journey as we follow the outfall of Amy’s disappearance and get an inside glimpse of a marriage between two very complex, needy characters full of contradictions: Nick is the perfect husband but harbours misogynistic thoughts; Amy is the dutiful only child but secretly hates the parents who dote on her.

Unreliable narrators?

The structure of Gone Girl is one of the most interesting things about this suspense novel. In alternate chapters, Nick and Amy take it in turns to tell their version of events, but it’s done in such a way that you are never quite sure which character is telling the truth and which one is lying. And just when you think you have things figured out, one of them does or says something that makes you change your mind. Nothing is entirely straightforward or clear cut.

But the novel is not perfect. Putting aside the fact that the concept of the plot is preposterous — don’t think about it too much and just go with the flow, is my advice — I found that there was little to distinguish the voices of Amy and Nick, so that I occasionally got them muddled up. It doesn’t help that Nick is not a convincing male character.

The prose also feels heavy-handed and overwritten. (On more than one occasion it reminded me of Tana French, who has the same tendency towards verbosity.) Initially, I wondered if it might simply be  a characteristic of Nick’s voice, but Amy’s voice was written in exactly the same vein so I suspect it’s just the way Flynn writes.

A masterpiece of plotting

But these are only minor criticisms. Flynn’s real strength — apart from turning the suspense/crime genre on its head — is her careful plotting and her steady drip-feed of new facts and admissions that make you constantly switch your allegiance from one character to another the further you get into the story.

Flynn is also very good at capturing modern America after the global financial crash of 2008 — most of Nick and Amy’s neighbours have defaulted on their mortgages, the local mall has gone bankrupt, hundreds of people have been laid off — and the way in which public opinion is determined by the media.

This is a fast-paced, incredibly well plotted and often surprising read. I have to admit I didn’t become truly hooked until page 144 when I was so alarmed by the turn of events I just had to keep turning the pages — and then I couldn’t stop. Gone Girl  is not exactly a pleasant read — the characters are nasty, manipulative, shallow and conniving — but it’s an addictive one.