At some point in most novels, a paragraph or single sentence, cleverly situated in a way that isn’t expository, etches in thumbnail the major theme of a work. The better ones find ways to incorporate it as direct function of character, as in the following:
I felt no particular allegiance to this town. This was the place my sister died, the place I started cutting myself. A town so suffocating and small, you tripped over people you hated every day. People who knew things about you. It’s the kind of place that leaves a mark.
So muses Camille Preaker, Gillian Flynn’s restless reporter and sardonic anti-heroine from her debut novel, Sharp Objects. With the current buzz still humming over her latest book, Gone Girl—with film adaptation by David Fincher slated for October of 2014—revisiting her first book seems an apropos primer of this dark and penetrating author (her second book, Dark Places, will be reviewed in subsequent months, culminating in Gone Girl to coincide with the movie release).
Camille’s a journalist for The Daily Post, the “fourth largest in Chicago,” a newspaper with its head barely above water, and whose editor, Frank Curry, mines the cold-case files for the next human interest tale sure to snag a Pulitzer. When the disappearance of a second girl occurs in the town of Wind Gap, Missouri, he dispatches the reluctant Camille at once to get the scoop.
There’s only one problem: Wind Gap is Camille’s home town. Wind Gap hasn’t been good to Camille, a place she has shunned for eight years. A place she describes as “One of those crummy towns prone to misery.” She says this not from dread, but from a quietly haunting intimacy with torment. At the start of the novel, we learn that Camille’s been freshly released into the world after spending several months under psychiatric care. She’s a cutter, specifically of words. Her body is a monument to insecurity and anger, starting at the age of thirteen with Wicked carved into her left hip, and stopping at twenty-nine with Vanish. The only unmarred spot on her body is a circle of perfect skin the size of a fist, on the small of her back which she could never reach.
As with most self-mutilation, it’s but the physical manifestation of deeper emotional traumas, in Camille’s case prompted by the death of her younger sister, Marian, from an ambiguous illness. The tension surrounding this mysterious passing serves as lynchpin for her strained relationship with her mother, Adora, Wind Gap’s unspoken matriarch. Wealthy, priggish, steeped in passive-aggressiveness and secrets, Adora is never sparing of her disdain for Camille, telling her in a casual manner: “You remind me of my mother. Joya. Cold and distant and so, so smug. My mother never loved me either. And if you girls won’t love me, I won’t love you.”
The other of the girls she refers to is Camille’s half-sister, Amma, a sexually hyper-developed thirteen year-old who heads a clique of equally spiteful girls, and who in many ways is her mother’s equal in cruelty and malice.
Rattling between the warring factions of her mother and step-sister, Camille attempts to investigate the abduction-murders in Wind Gap. When the missing girl, Ann Nash, turns up dead not long after her arrival in town—found strangled within a cleft between two buildings, her teeth yanked out (a virtual carbon-copy of the first victim, Natalie Keen)—Camille finds little help from the male authorities. Men view her as suspicious, an outsider with a dubious agenda, yet the scorn doesn’t surprise or upset Camille. She’s used to it. Other than her boss, Frank, who’s a well-meaning but scattershot father-figure, men are often portrayed as dichotomies rather than with any subtlety or depth. They’re afterthoughts, fleeting, a part of the scenery. This isn’t a detriment to the book; they are as Camille sees them based on her experiences. Bill Vickery, the police chief, is an all-business cipher, dismissive of theories that don’t fit his own. The fathers in the book, namely those of the two victims, as well as her own step-father, Alan, are ineffectual and milquetoast. Even one of the chief suspects, the second victim’s father, Bob Nash, is such a laconic wallflower that even Camille’s suspicion of him is passive.
Her impulse is to be drawn towards the damaged sorts. The dark and the indifferent. She says of some teenage boys preening on the street: Those kids, cocky and pissed and smelling like sweat, aggressively oblivious of our existence, always compelled me.
Two men eventually serve this function for Camille. The first is a cocksure detective visiting from Kansas City, Richard Willis. His interest in Camille is obvious to her from the start, and though attracted to him as well, she’s apprehensive. She keeps him at arm’s length, at first engaging in a mutual pact of information gathering from his end in exchange for company and candor from hers. But the dearth of intimacy in her life eventually topples the pact into the sexual, albeit mostly clothed in Camille’s case, as she’s reluctant to let any man know that she’s a cutter.
That revelation is ultimately bestowed upon John Keen, the second victim’s older brother and on-again, off-again murder suspect in what passes for the book’s most tender, affectionate scene in a roadside motel.
It isn’t long though before Camille realizes that her best chance to secure clues or leads resides within the secretive cliques of female enmity prevalent in Wind Gap. It is a private world where women hurt each other both overtly and passively, even at funerals. Where gossip is both weapon and shield, wielded for social advancement. This antagonism lies at the core of Sharp Objects. The book is less murder mystery and more an exploration of the cruelty that women inflict upon one another, be it friend to friend, classmate to classmate, sister to sister, or mother to daughter—all of which play a role, often spanning multiple generations.
Not even the two murder victims are immune from this hostility, as it is gradually learned through Camille’s piecemeal interrogations of witnesses and suspects. The first victim, Natalie, had assaulted a female classmate back in Philadelphia; “They saved her left eye,” is all we’re left to know. The second victim, Natalie, is a chronic biter, one of her victims being Adora who used to watch over both girls at different points, thus relegating her eventually to the suspect list.
But the cruelty isn’t limited to others. They’re just as adept in dispensing it upon themselves. Self-abuse runs rampant, from Adora’s intractable plucking out of her eyebrows while tending to her dying daughter, Marian, to Camille’s equally impulsive drinking and cutting, the latter acting as a coping refrain throughout.
Number of synonyms for “anxious” carved in my skin: eleven, she ponders at one point. Later on it’s, Unworthy flared up in my leg, followed by, Belittle burned on my right hip, and so the scoring goes.
At the heart of it all burns a generational war over control, status, and vanity. Camille and Adora’s relationship, cleaved forever with the death of Marian, is in a persistent state of escalation, even in absentia. Upon Camille’s return to Wind Gap, Adora wastes no time exercising all the petty cruelties and power-plays while shamelessly utilizing the plausible deniability of victimhood, all of which Camille is privy to from the get go.
Every tragedy that happens in the world happens to my mother, and this more than anything about her turns my stomach.
Adora’s grief at having lost Marian has become a virtual hobby, one that she attempts to relive again through her two other daughters. Camille soon realizes that the milk and pills Adora’s been giving them both as “relaxants,” are in actuality making them sicker by the day, especially Amma who’s been subjected to it longer. This prompts Camille to track down the nurse that ministered to Marian during her final days, and through the rediscovering of original medical files that had been tampered with, it is learned that Adora had been slowly poisoning her first daughter for years.
Much of this serves the logistical and procedural facets of the book however, which in many respects is the least important aspect of an otherwise compelling but ruthless character study of a woman at war to wrest her identity from history and genetics. When the killer of the two girls is eventually “revealed,” you’re more beleaguered by the inevitability of it than you are shocked. But it’s only because Flynn has artfully played with genre expectations and structures to lead one to such a conclusion. A twist is added near the end that upends the original reveal, and it’s a shocking revelation if unexpected, a sad one if anticipated. A kind of perverse circle has closed, and in the middle sits Camille, perhaps finally with the determination to pierce through it.
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