Thursday, January 1, 2015

Book Review: "Dark Places" (Gillian Flynn)

If you've read anything about writing, you've heard about the unreliable narrator --- the one you're not entirely sure you can trust because he or she isn't trustworthy.

Libby Day, dubious protagonist of the psychological thriller Dark Places, by New Your Times bestselling author Gillian Flynn, is an unreliable narrator if I ever met one.

Libby is the sole survivor of the massacre that killed her single mother and two older sisters when Libby was seven years old. She accused her oldest sibling, brother Ben --- withdrawn and a known rebel about town already in trouble for purportedly molesting girls his sisters' ages --- of the crime and sent him to prison for life.

More than twenty years later, Libby has been living on donations from well-meaning people who read about her childhood trauma and provided her with enough money, when she turned eighteen, to live comfortably and, essentially, do nothing productive with her life. Now, the money is running out, and she's determined not to have to work or get an education to support herself.

An opportunity to make money presents itself when she's approached by someone from the Kill Club, whose members research and obsess over notorious crimes, looking for information about her family's deaths and memorabilia from her past.

The Kill Club members most interested in Libby's family claim that Ben is innocent and that someone else was responsible for the deaths that night. They want Libby to dredge up suspects and contacts from her childhood and get to the bottom of what really happened the night of the murders. Avaricious to a fault, Libby agrees, and finds out far more than she ever suspected.

After Gillian Flynn's 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, and its outstanding success (the novel was an Edgar Award finalist and won two Dagger Awards out of Britain), and especially considering her more recent and widely praised 2012 bestseller, Gone Girl, I expected more from Dark Places than I got.

The novel falls flat in a number of different ways that made me regret picking it up and reading it at all. I don't say that often about books, especially about ones by such renowned authors.

Libby Day, the protagonist, is not only unreliable but also unlikable. She's emotionally manipulative, lazy, disrespectful, dogmatic, unkind, passive-aggressive, greedy, and a martyr and kleptomaniac, to boot. She's a terribly unsympathetic character, and while I felt horror at how she'd lost her family at such a young age and in such a terrible way, I felt no particular kinship with Libby herself. It was a struggle to read the book through to its conclusion.

Libby's isn't the only point of view (or voice) in the novel. The story is also told through the eyes of Patty, Libby's single mother, and Ben, the accused, with periodic flashbacks to the fateful eve and night of the massacre.

Ben's voice is fairly well-developed, explaining if not justifying his teenage rebellion and a number of stupid decisions he made growing up that rendered him an outcast, ostracized and regarded as threatening and even dangerous, in their neighborhood. He's a more sympathetic character than Libby simply because he's the one in prison for the murders according to an unreliable narrator.

Patty's voice, however, is colorless. Nothing special distinguishes her speaking style, thoughts, or actions from those of any other character. Perhaps she's supposed to represent the archetypal "Every Man" in that way, but she comes across as two-dimensional and oblivious to reality. By the novel's conclusion, I lacked sympathy for her, as well.

Secondary characters are difficult to appreciate, since the tone of the novel as a whole is dark, ironic, and harsh. The attorney who has handled Libby's inherited donations is mealy-mouthed and smarmy. Lyle, Libby's contact from the Kill Club, is geeky and seems incapable of formulating a complete sentence without an "um" or "uh."

There just aren't any characters to like or appreciate. Each one seems to be one-dimensional, without any other rounding characteristics or unexpected juxtapositions that make characters intriguing. Libby represents the unreliable narrator and has no likable or contrasting qualities. Lyle represents the geek, with no contrasting qualities. Et cetera.

Finally, the novel could have benefited from a final close proofread before going to print. First, dialogue attributions like "shrugged," "smiled," and "sniffed" aren't ones that can be used to convey spoken words because nobody can shrug, smile, or sniff actual speech, and yet there are many such attributions throughout the novel. They're jarring to come across.

Second, some of the punctuation, especially for dialogue, is incorrect. A sample:

"Fuck. You." I screamed. (211)

A scream doesn't usually call for a period. And her scream is the attribution, which means that if there isn't an exclamation mark after "You," there should at the least be a comma there to finish the sentence. Dangling attributions startle the reader out of the story.

And third, in extremely tense, stressful, frightening, or climactic moments, the paragraphs tend to get longer. A small thing, perhaps, to some, but long paragraphs remind me of pages and pages of flowery dialogue, all one long paragraph without a single break. I used to skip such paragraphs when I was reading.

Tension tends to be best conveyed with short paragraphs, tight dialogue, rather than run-on sentences that take up a page or more at a time and make very little sense as they're read.

All told, I much prefer Sharp Objects to Dark Places, and will reserve personal critique for Gone Girl until I've read it.

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Title: Dark Places
Author: Gillian Flynn
ISBN: 978-0-307-34157-0
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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