November 4, 2013

Cuts Like a Knife: a review of Gillian Flynn's "Sharp Objects"

Sharp Objects
by Gillian Flynn
Shaye Areheart Books (2006)
272 pages
ISBN 9780307341549

Gillian Flynn's hit novel, Gone Girl, has been a runaway hit over the last year, but I have to wonder how many people were even aware she has two other novels under her belt. I've been meaning to read her debut novel, Sharp Objects, for a couple years now, but put it off along with a ton of other books recommended to me. With Flynn getting high praise, so I I just couldn't wait any longer. Questions is, was this book worth the wait?

One thing Sharp Objects is most definitely not is a mere mystery. I had barely finished reading the first page before I started to wonder how morose a story I was in for. The subject matter is even more bleak and bloody than I intuited from the reviews I read.

Camille Parker is a reporter for a third-rate Chicago newspaper. Barely unpacked from her latest stint in a psych hospital--she's got problems by the plateful, by the way--her editor sends her to her little hometown in Missouri to investigate the murders of two little girls. Camille would probably prefer covering a story in Syria than revisit her hometown.

Rumors are already circulating in the little town over who the apparent serial killer is, a drifter passing through or one of their own. People love to talk in this town, if for no other reason than to hear themselves to talk, and one of the biggest perpetrators is Camille's mother, Adora. Adora, as it turns out, isn't just the matriarch of the Parker home, but also the owner of the town's biggest job provider, hog butchering. Yeah, the Parker family is well-acquainted with blood, and that's not even considering Camille's little sister also died as a child, and Camille herself grew up to become a cutter.

Camille is a striking and captivating character. It's hard not to hang on her every word through the novel, with every sentence saturated in her angst and regret and resentment. And her body is literally scarred from head to toe, as she spent her adolescence carving word after word on her skin. She's like a sculpture of scars both literal and figurative.

And while the alcoholism and self-destructive behavior might feel slightly artificial in its extremity at times during the story, it's her family that really strays into cartoonish territory. Granted, I've never had to socialize with rich snobs all that much, but it felt a little cookie-cutter at points. Then there's the absolutely venomous little half-sister, Amma, who felt like she'd been cobbled together by every mean girl cliche in existence. If Sharp Objects had a weak spot, it was the way it strained credulity to the point of snapping it in two, with such over-the-top supporting characters. Still, small town life is not without its quirky characters.

As for the mystery Camille works to solve, the clues and revelations are all there if you know where to look, but the dire spiral Camille's life takes as she spends more time in the tumultuous hometown create enough distraction that the ending is a real shocker.

Even with Sharp Objects bordering on satire of smalltown America , I'm thoroughly impressed by Flynn's way of weaving a mystery plot with her protagonist's inner demons, and am quite eager to see how Dark Places and Gone Girl

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