I’ve already watched the mostly excellent HBO adaptation with Amy Adams before reading Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, but having read her other books I think I’d have had a fair idea of what to expect anyway. As her musical namesake Gillian Welch sings, You know some girls are bright as the morning / And some have a dark turn of mind.
Dark turn of mind and deeply disturbed female characters have certainly been the trademark of Flynn, who seems to relish kicking against the notion that female characters need to be likeable or/and nurturing, and the heroine of Sharp Objects is no exception. Camille Preaker is a journalist at a small Chicago newspaper, who gets sent to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to write a story about the recent murder of a young girl and the disappearance of another (it’s not a huge spoiler to say that Camille’s story is eventually about two murders). Other than chasing a Pulitzer, Camille’s editor believes that the assignment might be a chance for her to go back to the roots of her dysfunction and reconcile with her own painful past.
Camille, as we discover later on, has a drinking problem and is a self-harmer, her skin screaming with random words she’s carved into her body over the years, starting with the death of her younger sickly sister Marian when Camille was thirteen. Now she’s back in her childhood home, staying with her patrician, emotionally distant mother Adora, “old money” who lives in a lavish mansion and owns the town’s hog farm. There’s also Camille’s half-sister Amma she barely knows after years of estrangement, who seems to have replaced Marian as Adora’s favourite. Amma is a precocious thirteen-year-old with a split personality: at home she’s babied by Adora and throws childish tantrums when she doesn’t get her way, outside she’s a big-breasted pill-popping Mean Girl bouncing around in skimpy clothes with a posse of other teenage girls.
The toxic family dynamics and the suffocating atmosphere of a small town don’t make for a happy homecoming, to say the least. Camille’s mother is pure poison, and her old classmates that she bumps into don’t seem to have ever outgrown the mean small-minded pettiness of the high school cliques. Flynn’s writing is compelling without a doubt, but her book is so packed with ugliness, nastiness, cruelty and disgust that you almost want to take a bath afterwards and read something about kittens and rainbows instead. Camille is easily the book’s most sympathetic character, however even she is difficult and spiky, with no softness to her; her relationship with her concerned fatherly editor back in Chicago is one of the very few rays of light in the novel.
Though it’s technically a mystery novel, like the TV series Sharp Objects the book functions more like a grim character study in a guise of a murder mystery, so knowing all the twists in the story beforehand didn’t really matter. Surprise surprise, the final shocking revelation is handled much better in the book than in the series; I wish TV writers got over the misguided idea that an abrupt shocking ending always equals good ending.