Dark Places by Gillian Flynn – Book Review

Dark_Places_coverGillian Flynn has a fascination with the bleak side of life, for sure. Gone Girl was dark and cynical, and this one had all that plus a whole lot more blood, poverty and Satanism on top. I’m glad I read it in an overall good mood, otherwise my mental state might have spiralled down a tad.

In its opening chapter, we’re introduced to Libby Day, a survivor of the horrific family murder in rural Kansas when she was seven. Libby’s testimony put her older brother Ben in prison for life, and 24 years later, she’s a sad screw-up, with no job, no friends, living off the donations that had come from the well-wishers and now all but dried up. Desperate for cash, she reluctantly takes up the offer from the bizarre fan club whose members are obsessed with famous murders to first appear at their convention for Q&A, and then to seek out the various people connected with the crime.

Libby, whose belief in Ben’s guilt never wavered all these years, is also shaken by the club members’ conviction that her brother is innocent and that someone else is responsible for her family’s massacre. In between Libby’s road trips, there are flashback chapters told from the point of view of Ben and Patty, Ben and Libby’s mother, which inevitably count down to the night of the murders.

Early on Libby puts it bluntly that she was not a lovable child, and she’s grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Flynn has a knack for writing unlikable characters you want to keep reading about, and she doesn’t shy away from revealing her characters’ deepest, darkest unmentionable thoughts and impulses. She also does a great job with the Day family dynamics, particularly with the way siblings can treat each other like shit sometimes, and I liked the little things like how the same situation can be interpreted so differently by two different people. Patty, an overworked mother of four who is struggling to keep her farm and family together and who can only watch her son descend into something dark, is probably the most sympathetic character here and you really get a sense of her plight.

The book has a strong sense of place and the landscape the characters inhabit is pretty damn bleak; the hopeless poverty and grind, the seedy strip clubs and the squatters’ camp. There’s also a strong satirical edge as far as our culture’s obsession with crime goes; I got an impression that it skewers even the seemingly good-hearted women who correspond with Libby’s brother in prison and think the world of him.

To be honest, I thought that the Kill Club device that galvanises Libby into action was a bit contrived, but otherwise I can’t fault the novel’s plotting. Flynn knows exactly how to pace the mystery and how much to reveal before switching to another setting, how to plant moments and items whose significance is revealed later on, and how to make the past and present timelines work in unison so that the story is revealed bit by bit and neither timeline feels redundant. Regarding the final big reveal, I guessed some of it since it was pretty obvious that there was no way a particular character wouldn’t be involved, but the bulk of it took me completely by surprise. It both came out of a blue, and did make total sense once you looked back and remembered particular details. So three admiring hand claps for that.

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