July 2009

Beth Harrington

fiction

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

In 2007, Gillian Flynn released her debut novel Sharp Objects which was nominated for an Edgar Award. I did not read Sharp Objects, but I intend to now in hopes that it is anywhere nearly as compelling as her sophomore effort. It is hard to imagine a novel that so agilely balances the suspense of a mystery whodunit with the interior complexity of a psychological narrative as Dark Places.

In 1985, Libby Day's fifteen year-old brother was charged with murdering their mother and two sisters in a rural Kansas farm town as part of a satanic ritual -- subtly reminiscent of the West Memphis Three case. Only seven years-old, Libby managed to escape and served as a witness for the prosecution at her brother's trial, clinching his guilty verdict. At the age of thirty-one, she is not exactly thriving a quarter-century after the killings. She lives alone in a rented bungalow in a neighborhood that is mostly populated with senior citizens. She does not work, surviving on a bank account of donations submitted in the aftermath of her family's murders. She cites a host of tics and idiosyncrasies that control the space where memories of her mother, sisters, and even her brother have decayed. When she receives word that her assets are nearly gone, Libby agrees to be a guest at the Kill Club -- a fan group for people obsessed with the trivia of popular murders -- for a fee.

What starts out as an attempt to solicit money and assuage any doubts about her brother's guilt, transforms into a quest to discover what really did happen on that fateful night and why. Chapters alternate between the present narrated by Libby and the past on the day leading up to the murders, revealing a chain of events in which no detail is inconsequential and no person lacks an ulterior sensibility. Patty Day is a haggard mother of four, determined not to let her family's farm go bankrupt even as she struggles to make ends meet for her children. Runner Day is Patty's deadbeat ex-husband, showing up at the farm whenever he pleases to beg favors from the family he should be supporting. Ben Day emerges as a complicated loner, angry yet sensitive, struggling with all of the urges and confusion that make adolescence so unpleasant. In the current time, Libby's once-idle days are spent chasing leads that send her all over the Midwest from highway strip joints to a Missouri suburb where she meets the only family member born after the murders.

While some readers may find the answer to the whodunit mystery -- with its collision of cataclysmic events and their unintended consequences -- less satisfying than the emergence of a sole, responsible villain, the book's conclusion as a whole more than compensates. What makes the ending so rich is that Libby's redemption -- if it can be called that -- is so subtly evoked. Libby does not fall in love, she does not have a child, and it is not entirely clear how she get by now that she has unraveled the tragedy of her past. She has merely acquired a small belief that goodness exists, a hard-earned willingness to reach out to others. Saved is not the word to describe Libby Day at the end of Dark Places but rather, salvaged, and in Gillian Flynn's skilled hands, that is enough.

 

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
Shaye Areheart Books
ISBN: 0307341569
368 Pages

 

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