Like the Sharp Objects of its title, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel is a spiky, pointed book – cold and hard and ultimately something that keeps the reader at arm’s length.
As we’ve seen in Gone Girl, Flynn is the master of that creeping sense that something is not quite right, that the nasty truth is right under your nose and the same is true of Sharp Objects.
Camille Preaker, a reporter in Chicago, recently released from hospital is sent on assignment to her home town of Wind Gap Missouri to cover the murders of two young girls who may have been the victims of a serial killer who removes their teeth. This gruesome story is the least of Camille’s worries though, as she tries to settle back in to life with her cold, manipulative mother; her barely there step father and her precocious teenage half-sister. Going home can be difficult, but for Camille it brings back painful memories of her sister who died as a child and her difficult upbringing replete with wealth but devoid of love. In order to write her story, Camille has to delve into her past – old memories, old friends, old boyfriends and the old pain that drove her to self-harm. Camille is a cutter, but in true Flynn style she is someone who cuts words into her skin and is covered in scars that read like a nightmarish diary.
All I know is that the cutting made me feel safe. It was proof. Thoughts and words captured where I could see them and track them. The truth, stinging on my skin, in a freakish shorthand.
It’s a lot of plot for a relatively short book and it doesn’t all work. The ending is very clearly signposted from the beginning bar a little bit of subterfuge, but the book takes it’s time getting there. It may be a thriller, but Flynn seems more interested in exploring what lurks beneath the surface of this small suburban town, and what lurks beneath is not pleasant.
If you felt that Flynn’s most famous creation, Amy Dunne was a misogynistic caricature then you may have a similar reaction to Sharp Objects. All of the characters are, bar a few, ugly. Not physically ugly, but psychologically. This is a town filled with the shallow, the bitter and the judgemental. And the majority of those are women.
They were women not strong enough or smart enough to leave. Women without imagination. So they stayed in Wind Gap and played their teenage lives on an endless loop. And now I was stuck with them unable to pull myself out.
There are some men in Wind Gap, but they don’t say a lot. The women fall into three categories. The older matriarchs, the Stepford Wives and the Mean Girls – all obsessed with their pecking order, gossip and superiority. Every one of them appears trapped on a teenage treadmill of hierarchy. Camille appears to be the only one of her school friends who has left the town and of those who stayed, the pretty ones married well and have nice houses and the plain ones serve them in restaurants or in their own homes. Camille’s frightening half-sister Amma rules her school with a mixture of beauty and bullying and the killers victims are girls who did not fit in, who were smart but not beautiful. Even our supposed heroine Camille succumbs to this thinking,
The pretty girl might do all right. But the piggy middle child, who now waddled dazedly into the room, was destined for needy sex and snack-cake bingeing
The book could be read as a misogynistic fairy tale, a kind of Lord of the Flies style fable of what can happen when women are not being held in check. However, given the amount of sexual violence in the book, it can also be seen as a criticism of the normalised sexualisation of women. Women’s bodies are both weapons and territory to be conquered in Flynn’s world. I personally think that Flynn wants to show that in terms of moral depravity and violence, women are often on a par with men and in some ways she sees that as a form of feminism.
This is a book about damage, namely the damage done between mother and daughter. Fairy tale references to changelings, wicked witches and snow queens sprinkle the narrative, but this is more Grimm than Disney and in some of the more interesting aspects of the book, Flynn effectively explores the damage that can be done within the family unit and how that damage blurs the edges and seeps into every aspect of life.
I always feel sad for the girl that I was, because it never occurred to me that my mother might comfort me. She has never told me that she loved me, and I never assumed she did. She tended to me. She administrated me.
Poison features large, from actual poisons, alcohol and pills, to an inner toxicity that eats away at the self.
Sometimes I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom…I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions.
I can see and appreciate what Flynn was trying to do in Sharp Objects, but for me it didn’t quite work. The more interesting aspects of the novel were overshadowed by pacing issues and very thin characterisation. Much of reading a novel for me is ‘seeing’ these people I am reading about, imagining them in my head, but none of these people came alive for me. Nearly all the inhabitants of Wind Gap are caricatures and the book is unrelenting in its sheer nastiness and provocation, with many unnecessary sex scenes and a really rather ludicrous ending.
I appreciate a dark book, but not one that feels forced. Sharp Objects reads a bit like a training manual for Gone Girl, with a lot of similar themes and overarching structure and just like Gone Girl it left me a little cold.
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