Okay so, book #3 of my year is complete. It was quite the page-turner, let me tell you – I read Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. Updating this blog more often as I’m reading more is showing me that I maybe overuse the word “genius,” but Flynn really might be a genius storyteller. I’m convinced she could write about the slow and steady expiration of cheese, and make the reader not want to sleep so they could finish her latest thriller.
So Dark Places. I’m really trying to get better about not including spoilers, so I’m going to talk in more general terms about this book. First though, I have to acknowledge how disorienting and sometimes terrifying it is to share a name with an unlikable character in a book. The main character’s name is Libby, and “Libby” isn’t the most common name, I’ve probably met 9 in my life, including myself. So then Flynn includes this terrifying nursery rhyme thing at the beginning of the novel (I’ll include it at the end) and there’s my name, among this horrifying image. Pretty weird.
But that brings me to the point of unlikable main characters and narrators. I love novels with characters that are easy to fall in love with, who doesn’t, but I also love when you have to really try to find redeeming qualities in the narrator. Libby Day of this novel fits into the latter category, and right away she reveals herself to be damaged in a bitter way that does not inspire a ton of sympathy. She’s selfish and greedy and, some insensitive people may say, lazy. But also very depressed. Which stems from semi-witnessing the gruesome murders of her two older sisters and mother, and then testifying that her older brother, Ben, committed them.
No matter how you tell it, this plot is going to be compelling. That’s just a crazy story, so either way I think a reader would be hooked with that information alone. But, as established by precedent, Flynn goes above and beyond and turns that into an intense, actually-impossible-to-stop-reading novel because of the genius way she tells it. She switches back and forth between narrators, which I think is always an effective storytelling method, but she also jumps from the murdering brother and late mother’s narrations in the 16-ish hours leading up to the attack, back to the present day where the mother is dead, the brother’s in jail, and Libby’s trying to figure out what happened.
It is so, so, so effective. First of all, because she’s so great at ending literally every chapter with some crazy cliffhanger sentence, but it’s even more of a cliffhanger because you know you’re going to have to get through a chapter to reach that narrator and time period again. But then you remember the cliff-hanger from the chapter before the one you just finished, and realize you have to read that chapter to find out where that’s leaving off! Again, this probably makes no sense unless you’ve read it, so forgive me for getting excited. It’s just so smart.
Another smart thing she does: she’ll give the reader tiny details in the chapters narrated from the past, to be used by the reader as these little building blocks. It builds suspense so well. Like, a quick note about how Patty (the mom) is nervous that her ex-husband might be back after an angry outburst at the house, so she moves her gun near the front door in case he comes back violent. Ah! And we already know, the gun that she just placed near the door was used in the murders, because we’re also getting Libby’s present day interpretation of the case, and vague details that her 7-year-old mind remembers from that night. It’s also part of what makes it so compulsively readable; you as the reader just have to sit and take in these details helplessly, watching as the characters do these minor things that will later be crucial in their deaths. Pretty frustrating, but also makes for really involved reading.
Last smart storytelling thing she does (that I want to talk about, because everything she does in her writing is smart): she’ll repeat these phrases from chapter to chapter. Not like inside jokes between the characters, but just random phrases that serve to ring bells and always remind the reader of the other crazy story lines that are happening while they’re all wrapped up in their own. It’s genius. The story as a whole also raises some interesting questions about violent crimes like this, and settling for a convenient perpetrator rather than really investigating. This sentiment is also probably coming from the fact that I finally finished Serial this week, but still. It’s interesting. (PS if you haven’t yet, LISTEN TO SERIAL.) (I linked it twice there, to make it easier for you.)
This is longer than I meant it to be, so sorry. But last thing, which is kind of an annoying thing that just makes me happy as a detail-oriented person. Even though I just ranted about how she’s a genius writer and storyteller, she made a mistake! I take a sick pride in finding mistakes in books. It’s minor, but there’s a point between two chapters where she changes Ben’s (the murdering brother’s) pants between chapters. I may not have noticed it if she hadn’t had Ben focus so much on the fact that both pairs of pants were equally mocked by his friends. Again, annoying, but noticing discrepancies in novels selfishly gives me hope that someday I can actually make it as an editor. Sorry, Gil. Everyone still read it (or really anything by her), you’ll find yourself marveling at her ability to suck you in. ◊
The days were a clan that mighta lived long / But Ben Day’s head got screwed on wrong / That boy craved dark Satan’s power / So he killed his family in one nasty hour
Little Michelle he strangled in the night / Then chopped up Debby: a bloody sight / Mother Patty he saved for last / Blew off her head with a shotgun blast
Baby Libby somehow survived / But to live through that ain’t much of a life.”