When I received my copy of Gillian Flynn‘s Dark Places (out today), I yelped with joy because I’d been waiting three years for the follow-up to her superb, Dagger-winning Sharp Objects. My reaction is ironic because there’s no joy in this story—it’s a vicious tale of mass murder and the aftereffects on the lone survivor. But, to paraphrase Tina Fey, you want to go to there because of Flynn’s exceptional prose.
The story concerns Libby Day, who at age 7 survived the slaughter of her family in the so-called “Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” She then testified that her 15-year-old brother Ben committed the murders. Twenty-five years later, Ben is serving a life sentence and Libby is drifting aimlessly, running out of money from strangers who’ve been sending sympathy checks since she was little. As her trust fund manager explains, she’s now a has-been because there are new victims every day.
Fortuitously, Libby is contacted by the Kill Club, a group of true-crime aficionados who believe her brother is innocent and that Libby should review the case and recant her previous testimony, which they think was coached by a child psychologist. They offer to pay Libby to interview Ben and other people involved with the case and report back any new findings. Libby at first agrees to the scheme strictly for the cash but soon starts to question what she really saw that night. She’s ultimately forced to confront the terrifying Darkplace which she’s managed to block out most of her life.
Yes, all this sounds pitch black but Flynn’s prose is so exquisite, she makes you want to go with Libby to that Darkplace, perhaps even lead the way, wielding a flickering flashlight. Flynn’s descriptions instantly paint vivid pictures and you envy her literary skill even as you sometimes recoil from the image. She talks about a man who’s such a cheat, he steals fake money from the bank when playing Monopoly with his kids. She describes a house so dilapidated, it’s “a home past the expiration date.” A girl who looks “sexy-sleepy…like you woke her up from a dream she had about you.” And then there’s this personification of a residential neighborhood: “The houses reminded me of hopeful, homely girls on a Friday night, hopping bars in spangly tops, packs of them where you assumed at least one might be pretty, but none were, and never would be. And here was Magda’s house, the ugliest girl with the most accessories, frantically piled on.”
It’s fitting that even the house is a misfit because Flynn’s characters are mostly anti-heroes, nasty bitches and oily bastards. But her razor-sharp prose will cut through any preconceived notions you might have about such people and convince you their point of view should at least be counted. Libby might be pissed at the world, lacking in social skills, and a serious klepto, but Flynn still manages to make her relatable without asking for an ounce of pity. It’s as if the author reaches into your brain and adjusts it by giving it a slight twist, counter-clockwise. All of a sudden, you see things differently, like maybe you’ve got some blackness in you, too. But instead of hiding it, Flynn suggests you embrace it like klepto Libby clutching her stolen knickknacks.
Nerd verdict: Embrace the Dark side