Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Unbeknownst to most people, Camille Preaker is a cutter. This started after the death of her sickly younger sister, Marian, and led to a recent stay in a psychiatric unit. Her entire body is covered with words that she needed to make permanent at one time or another: wicked, harmful, whore. The only places left clear are her face and a small circle on her back. Whilst she is recovering well, and has not marked herself with a blade in quite some time, she still writes on herself with a pen and feels the words already carved into her skin burning whenever they become appropriate.

Unfortunately, her life is suddenly disrupted by her editor’s insistence that she returns to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to get the scoop on the possible emergence of a new serial killer. When one preteen girl was found strangled, the town was willing to overlook her missing teeth and place the blame on a stranger passing through town. However, when a second girl goes missing, it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the truth: Wind Gap has probably become home to a deranged serial killer. Camille’s history with the townsfolk is difficult, to say the least, but she may have a way in to the spectacular story before any of the more successful papers in Chicago have even heard about the sleepy little town.

* * * * * 

Ironically, although we have now read all three of Gillian Flynn’s novels we started with Gone Girl and then read the others in reverse publication order. I was more impressed with Dark Places than her latest, and most famous, offering, but I think that was heavily influenced by the fact that I found both lead characters in Gone Girl to be highly unlikeable! Sharp Objects was her debut novel but it does not read like a book written by an inexperienced author and I can understand why it won, and was nominated for, so many awards. It is complex and very, very dark in a way that will disturb many readers, especially those with preteen relatives. Many of the characters are deeply flawed or disturbingly antisocial and yet they remain horrifically real and believable. Many reviewers have had an almost visceral reaction to the book, and I can completely understand why.

As with Dark Places, our protagonist was deeply damaged by her early life experiences. In this case, Camille and her younger half-sister were both plagued by strange illnesses almost from birth. For some reason, Camille grew out of them, but they increased in severity and frequency for Marian until she finally died without anyone being able to diagnose her medical problems. The death came when Camille was thirteen, a horribly difficult time for any child to finally lose a sick sibling and her grief manifested itself in her need to carve words into her skin. The descriptions of how Camille feels her skin burning and the relief she used to get from her cutting are highly disturbing but yet compelling, because they reveal such a deeply felt psychosomatic effect. She has a real physical need to write the words, and the fact that she resists it throughout this traumatic series of events makes her rather heroic in my eyes. This is not someone acting out to gain sympathy: this is a very private struggle for survival.

As you might expect, Marian’s suspicious death begins to assume increasing importance as we learn more about Camille’s family history, especially when we learn that her medical problems seem to be repeating themselves in the youngest child, thirteen year old Ama. As we become more suspicious of what secrets this family may be protecting, it is revealed that the identity of Camille’s father is unknown: she is the product of an act of teenage rebellion from her mother, Adora. As the only offspring of the family that effectively owns the town, Adora was a golden girl who wanted for nothing. She still has more money than she knows how to spend, even though the town seems to have suffered a bit of a decline, and yet she has a thoroughly irritating need to be pitied by everyone at all times. She floats around her mansion, taking to her ivory-floored bedroom whenever things do not go her way. She is an arch manipulator and is evil in so many ways that I wanted to slap her from our very first encounter. I was not very surprised when her true psychosis was revealed, as I was already familiar with the signs that point to it, but I had zero sympathy for this woman.

As the person lucky enough to marry Adora, Camille’s stepfather is a strangely androgynous individual. I was convinced that theirs would be revealed to be a marriage of convenience and that both Marian and the much younger Ama would be the products of further extra-marital liaisons. I was genuinely surprised that he was really their biological father as I cannot imagine how he could ever engage in sexual activity without creasing his immaculate trousers! He certainly was a good match for the useless Adora, spending his time floating about in a variety of fetching outfits, displaying almost no interest in his family or anything else. Perhaps it is my Type A personality, but I found both parents to be insufferably irritating in their inability to do anything productive with their lives.

Then we move on to the ‘queen’ of the town: Ama. I am not sure that I have ever read such an obnoxious and hateful character. Even though she is only thirteen years old, she displays a dazzling array of personas: she is a baby for her mother, a bully to the other girls her age and a Lolita-like tease to any males in her vicinity. Camille develops some tender feelings for her half-sister, because she understands how Adora has warped the girl’s personality, but I could not find it in my heart to like her one tiny bit. She was unremittingly awful and deserved everything that she got. The final straw was her visit to the pig farm, which made me shudder with true horror.

So, poor Camille has a family that is possibly the worst in the world: it is hardly surprising that she has serious psychological issues. It also explains why she has not spoken to them in the nearly ten years since she finally left town. This makes her editor’s determination to thrust her back into such a hostile environment seem positively cruel. His later actions were also questioned by the group, who saw his attempts to parent Camille as motivated more by self-interest than genuine affection or empathy. Indeed, the number of genuinely ‘nice’ people that we meet in this book is rather small. The town seems to be a simmering mire of petty cruelty and misogyny that was highly unpleasant and yet very believable. Most disturbing to me was the sexual behavior of the preteens that we encounter: their casual use of sex as a weapon and the way that they display such terrible self-esteem was very sad. I hope that their experience of high school is extremely atypical.

Although this is a disturbing read, I would still recommend it. The characters may not be pleasant, but their actions make perfect sense once you understand their motivations, which shows real skill from the author. We also have an appealingly damaged heroine in Camille, and although I could not agree with some of her choices, I was certainly happy to see her stronger at the end of this trail than she was at the beginning.

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