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Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn UPDATED - March 23, 2013 - see link at bottom

Camille Preaker is a young Chicago reporter with a troubled past. When a second young girl goes missing in her home town, Wind Gap, MO, Camille’s fatherly boss sends her down to get the inside scoop. Who says you can’t go home again? Well, maybe you can, but would you really want to? There is a reason she is in Chicago, instead of Podunk, MO, and the danger for Camille lies as much with her delicate psychological state, a product of her childhood, as it might with a psycho-killer on the loose. "Qu'est-ce que c'est ?"

Wind Gap is home to an array of characters left over from GCB, (Yes, I know it was published before the show) Stepford and Village of the Damned, and mix in a bit of Mommie Dearest and Cruella de Vil. Sounds like fun, no? Sorry to disappoint, but not so much.

Less than a year ago a young girl was found dead, floating in a stream, strangled, with her teeth removed. Now a second girl, about the same age, has gone missing and folks are fearing the worst. Well, duh-uh. ‘Ere long the body is found wedged in a foot-wide space between two buildings, sans pearly whites. The game is afoot.

Camille has to cope with an uncooperative local Sherriff and then try to get some, any information from the very cute Kansas City detective who had been brought in to help out. Camille is presented as a dish, and there is definite sexual tension between the reporter and the town’s visiting investigator. Ok I really first wrote “between the reporter and the town’s visiting dick”, but my wife (who does not have the mind of a 12 year old boy) shamed me into removing it. Usually she does not see my material until it is on line but had expressed curiosity about the book, so got a preview.

Camille makes the rounds, visiting the families of the victims, reconnecting, for good or ill with her former schoolmates, most of whom seem never to have heard of the women’s movement. But the largest connection for Camille in Wind Gap is her childhood home, inhabited by her mother, stepfather and half sister. Cue thunder and lightning, creepy music and under the chin lighting. Mom, ironically named Adora, has the warm presence of a guillotine and her stepfather, Alan, appearing in various costumes, seems to need only a pinky ring and fluffy white lap cat to complete the cartoon.

We all know what happens when we return to the houses in which we were raised. We regress. Come on, admit it. We behave like the children we once were. At the very least we feel the tug of those urges. In Camille’s case, her home life was, shall we say, lacking. Her little sister, Marian, had died when Camille was kid. Attempting to cope with that and some other issues, she took to a bit of long-lasting self-destructive behavior. In case the razor on the cover of this book is not obvious enough, Camille is a cutter, or was anyway. Not just lines, but words. And the words on her skin pop into her mind as she digs into her research and takes on the psychological challenges of her home town. We learn early on that she had spent some time in rehab attempting to overcome her addiction. The Camille we meet here may be scarred, but is trying to carve a less destructive path forward for herself. It is a challenge, and represents a parallel set of mysteries. How did the adolescent Camille reach a place where she felt it necessary to indulge in such harmful behavior? What’s the deal with her family? Camille has to figure out not only the secret of the two murders, but her own history.

Her background makes it easier for her to relate to her thirteen-year-old stepsister, Amma, who knew both the dead girls. They share some traits. Like Camille as a kid, Amma (a word that usually means “mother”) is a mean-girl group leader, headstrong, bright, and not someone you would ever cross. Amma is physically precocious, and behaviorally far beyond that. She can usually be seen with her girl-pack, laughing at funerals, or, metaphorically, kicking cripples.

Adding to the creepshow atmosphere, and keeping the cutting notion sharp, there is a slaughterhouse in town. One particular scene resonated a lot. In the slaughterhouse, sows are positioned on their sides, with absolutely no room to maneuver, and piglets are brought to the captive females to nurse. It is not an inducement to eating bacon. It so happened that I had seen a film, Samsara, the day before reading the book, in which this very scene was shown. In the book, an added element is that a young girl sits and watches this with unnatural pleasure.

We learn more about the victims in time, and it is a somewhat fun ride. But every now and then Camille does or says something that makes you shake your jowls like Louis Black approaching a punch line and burble out a WTF? And those moments take one out of the story.

There is clear evidence of talent on display. I liked the prefiguring of the opening in which Preaker is looking at her latest story, about a crack-addled mother who abandoned her kids. Mothering figures prominently in the story. Using a slaughterhouse to echo the cutting Camille practices on herself, and maybe some other horrors as well, may have been a bit heavy-handed, but fine, ok. Having Camille carve words into her skin definitely seems over the top to me, a bit of literary license, but fine, ok. I enjoyed the fun noir twang with which Flynn begins her story, but it seemed to fade quite a lot over the course of 254 pages. Fine, ok. And for fun, Camille, who has been known to hoist a few, manages to visit what seems every bar in town. I took it to be a running joke, but I am not 100% certain. Fine, ok. I felt a lot of fine, ok here.

There is some sex, a fair bit of sexiness, some serious creepiness, a bit of satisfaction to be had in the procedural elements of finding this out then that. But while there may have been satiric intent at work, the characters were either too inconsistent, too thinly drawn or even cartoonish to invest much emotionally. Sharp Objects may have been the bleeding edge of Flynn’s career as a novelist, and it is not a bad first cut, but it left me hoping that she would apply her obvious talent with finer lines next time, maybe use some subtler shades and etch more believable characters, give us material we could dig into a little deeper.

WB-9

==============================UPDATES

March 23, 2013 - GR pal Peg clued us in to a wonderful piece Flynn wrote for Powell's, that goes a way to illuminating her literary choices. If you read this or other books by Flynn, this short piece is MUST READ material.