Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn

A return to one's hometown should generally be a happy thing, tinged maybe with a bit of melancholy about the memories of what happened earlier. But, is this the case always, because if so, why does Camille, a reporter working in Chicago, has a lot of misgivings when asked to go to her hometown to report on what could be serial murders of children? As we learn next, why hasn't she gone to her hometown for several years?

Persuaded by her boss, Camille agrees to go to 'Wind Gap' and report on 2 murders of children that have happened in the past year. She meets her mother 'Adora' after a very long time, get acquainted with her step-sister 'Amma' who is 13, while trying to get information about the murders that have happened. We get to know more about the dynamics of Camille's relationship with her mother as well as about the murders. We also see the claustrophobic small town atmosphere, where everyone seems to know everything (where everything seemingly equals information which is part rumor and part truth and yet most are unaware of the really important things), where people are very eagr to get an object of their anger and suspicion for the murders,  people waiting for a release from their mundane lives to such an extent that even murders become a cause for release in a way (Camille feels that the people of Wind Gap would actually want a resident to the murderer instead of an outsider, because it would then given them stories to tell about how they actually lived near and even interacted with a murderer). 

Nothing really terrible happens (in the present and from the reader's POV) for the most part of the novel, but a sense of unease keeps on increasing as new things (from the past) come to light.  Why do some characters (in both the present/past) keep falling ill suddenly and recover at the same pace? Is the violent nature that is attributed to both the murdered girls cause their death? A boy tells Camille about something he witnessed in the woods, which taps into all our fears about the woods and the myths surrounding them. Towards the end, the slow burn nature of the novel reaches its peak and the tension becomes unbearable. There is a twist towards the end which may seem far-fetched, but in fact matches whatever happened earlier in the novel and actually makes more sense than the previous revelation.

With the protagonist 'Camille' being body abuser with cuts all over and a border line alcoholic to boot, with Amma's bullying and cruel treatment of her peers and younger kids (Megan Abbot also brought out the cruel vindictive streak in girls in her 'Dare Me'), it is easy to be go along with the general perception of Flynn being a misogynist. But is it actually so? Flynn says in an interview that

"To me, that puts a very, very small window on what feminism is," she responds. "Is it really only girl power, and you-go-girl, and empower yourself, and be the best you can be? For me, it's also the ability to have women who are bad characters … the one thing that really frustrates me is this idea that women are innately good, innately nurturing. In literature, they can be dismissably bad – trampy, vampy, bitchy types – but there's still a big pushback against the idea that women can be just pragmatically evil, bad and selfish ... I don't write psycho bitches. The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive, and so she's a dismissible person because of her psycho-bitchiness."

What Flynn says above perfectly matches this novel as the women characters are someone whom we can identify with easily, as devious and twisted as their actions are. This makes the novel scarier because the people who do the terrible things here could actually be the people we know and when supposedly normal people do such things the impact and shock of it is even more. So what stands out more than the actions of the antagonist (which it must be admitted is terrible indeed) is the motivation behind what is being done and the fact that it could be done by anyone at all, not by only a 'psycho-bitch'. One indicator (for me) of crime fiction that goes beyond being merely good or  thrilling is whether it makes the reader pause for thought and think about what-if scenario's that could have avoided the events of the novel and this novel does that to us.

When one reads an author's breakthrough work and then goes back to the earlier works of the author, comparisons are inevitable. Reading 'Sharp Objects', one sees that 'Gone Girl' was no flash in the pan. Indeed, I would rate 'Sharp Objects' higher than that. 'Gone Girl' may be a page turner in the purest sense, but 'Sharp Objects' has more emotional and narrative heft and is more tighter. In fact, 'Amy Dunner' of 'Gone Girl' could be the 'The psycho bitch is just crazy – she has no motive...', that Flynn says she doesn't write because we never even get any hint for her motives other than a feeling that she is a compulsive power seeker and hence is always distant from the reader (This may have been a conscious attempt by Flynn. Also, the psycho bitch character is not actually  a bad thing when it is not used as a cliche. Because why should every perpetrator of crime have something that happened in his/her childhood that caused him/her to snap, maybe he/she is wired that way only, but that's a discussion for another day). So, with all her twisted machinations, Amy (Gone Girl) is not as scary as the characters in 'Sharp Objects', who, while being as twisted as Amy are too close to  comfort for the reader. 

Whatever route Flynn takes in her future works, whether it be of the thrilling but a bit distant 'Gone Girl' kind or the more intimate and scary 'Sharp Objects' kind, she is a writer to look forward too.


  1. I've heard a lot of good things about this book. The trouble is that I didn't like 'Gone Girl' so I'm not sure I'm going to like this one either.

    1. I found this to be better constructed, (particular the characters and last part) than 'Gone Girl'. Do give it a try.