Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review of Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

From Winston-Salem Journal --

Book Review: Dark dregs make for bad, bleak reading --

By Steven B. Beach --
March 14, 2010 --

DARK PLACES. By Gillian Flynn. Shaye Areheart Books. 245 pages. $24.

It takes nerve to try selling a work of fiction when your protagonist is unlikeable; doubly so when the offensive character is female. The lack of sympathy conflicts with the reasons for which most people read fiction. But that is exactly what Gillian Flynn has done with Dark Places. This novel is a figurative train wreck from Page One -- and it's a wreck that just keeps on happening.

Libby Day describes herself as "…deeply unlovable…. Draw a picture of my soul, and it'd be a scribble with fangs." Dark Places is a voyeuristic viewing of damaged goods.

At age 7, Libby lost fingers and toes to frostbite when she escaped into the snow as her mother and sisters were stabbed, shot, strangled and mutilated with an ax. Because of her eyewitness testimonty, her brother, Ben, has been in prison all his adult life for the murders. She understandably wants nothing to do with him. Libby is an angry, unfocused, solitary kleptomaniac supported by donations amassed from well-wishers after the murders. But the money is running out.

Enter the Kill Club, a group of real-life murder-mystery aficionados who contend that Ben is innocent, and who are willing to pay Libby to seek answers from those intimately connected with the murders. Since she can't imagine reporting to a job in which she'd be expected to actually work, she takes full advantage of the offer -- even though it means confronting her past and spending time among people, some she'd rather not meet and some she'd rather never see again.

The book is written as two separate stories shuffled together like a deck of cards. Readers will alternate between the third-person limited viewpoints of three key players in 1985 and Libby's current-time, first-person narrative. The doling out of details forms a disturbing picture of events explaining actions and motives but few redeeming qualities of any characters.

Morbid curiosity kept me turning pages in the first half of this book. By the second half, I had become invested enough in this well-developed mystery to keep reading because I wanted to know how it worked out.

My difficulty with this story stemmed not from any perceived lack of expertise on the author's part, but in whom and what I was reading about. The characters are, almost without exception, the dregs of society: losers, drunks, liars and scoundrels. Couple that with the bleak setting of small-town life in depressed farm country where everything has gone wrong, then add enough angst to put Pollyanna on Prozac, thrill-kill mutilation of farm animals and sex scenes that invariably involve children, and you'll have an accurate depiction of this story. Precious little happiness can be found in Dark Places.

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