Gone Girl a couple of months ago and being totally hooked by the twisted characters and constant plot twists, I knew I had to read more by Gillian Flynn. I just listened to the audiobook of her second novel, Dark Places, and let me just say, she toned down the crazy for Gone Girl. Did you think that was possible? Neither did I.
Libby Day is 31. It has been 24 years since the night her mother and sisters were murdered and her brother Ben has been in jail all that time on a life sentence for the murders, due in part to Libby's own testimony. Libby is scarred, physically and emotionally. She is painfully depressed, often finding it impossible to get out of bed, and has been living off a trust fund created out of donations sent to her after the murders, as well as some very clever scrounging that helps her save money (she has some random tips about things you should never buy, like paper clips) and also the occasional theft (okay, she steals something everywhere she goes). But the money is almost gone and she needs to figure something out. Just when she's getting desperate, she is contacted by Lyle from "The Kill Club," a group of people who are obsessed by unsolved murders and are convinced that Ben isn't guilty of the crimes. They offer Libby money to recant her testimony against Ben and talk to various people to try and find out the truth about what happened that night. Unconvinced by their arguments but desperate for money, she agrees. The novel alternates between her present-day first-person narration, and third-person narrations of her brother and mother in the hours before the murders. The result is a bunch of unfortunate coincidences, disturbingly twisted minds, and a whole lot of crazy.
Though gripping, Dark Places can be tough to read. Every single character is miserable, nobody's life goes the way the intended, and nearly everybody lacks any real sort of happiness. Maybe the least messed up character is Lyle, but even he has demons (BIG demons) and he considers Libby, who belittles him at every turn, to be his friend, which says a lot about his own state of affairs. In short, this book is not an upper and contains just about every possible story of a failed life that you can imagine. Beyond that, I think the characterization is pretty good...of women that is. Ben's character development is just a little shallow and clearly written by a woman. While a lot of the issues he obsesses over are probably problems facing a lot of adolescent boys (e.g. how to be a man), I find it hard to believe that they verbalize them so clearly.
While we're on the topic of Ben, can we just talk about his relationship with Deandra? He has a girlfriend that nobody can know about, who says she's pregnant with his child, but she is absolutely awful to him and he just laps it up. Sure, it pisses him off, but he is so willing to take it that you almost stop feeling bad for him. And Deandra herself is just awful. Never mind the fact that she's drinking copious amounts of alcohol and using all sorts of random drugs while seven months pregnant with a child it's hard to believe is actually Ben's; she's also horribly vain and abusive and made me physically ill. And then there's the scene in the field (being purposely vague here) that really made me just queasy. It was hard to read. And then her later relationship (again, being vague) is even more messed up! How is that possible?
One aspect of the novel that I really likes is how Flynn draws attention to the crazes in American culture that ruin lives. There is an argument that Ben was imprisoned due to the "Satanic Panic" of the 80's - an unfounded fear that Satanism had infiltrated American life and that anybody associated with it was automatically guilt. Ben was loosely associated with Satanism, so it was a no-brainer that he committed the murders, despite the lack of evidence. This tendency is compared to the Red Scare of the 50's, and in general the tendency of American moralism to result in quite immoral consequences. You can even see this in the novel's farmers who bought up land at the urging of the banks, only to be blamed when it lost value and they went under.
Aspects of these blaming crazes are also in society's apparent desire to believe horrible things without substantial proof. A little girl accuses Ben of molesting her and as she describes it later, people want to believe her. There's a difference between giving credence to what a child says and encouraging them to say things that aren't true. A child who doesn't truly understand the implications of what she's saying is encouraged to describe an incident that never happened, and isn't given an out, because she's such a good little girl for telling. The comparison to Libby herself is obvious, who at 7 was encourage to testify against her brother, giving unsubstantial evidence, because the grown-ups were on a rampage and wanted this. It goes far beyond the actual accusations and turns into bloodlust, pure and simple.
Overall, this is a tightly plotted, quite disturbing novel, that comes together quite neatly in the end. The characters aren't your friends but they (especially the women) are real and relatable. I definitely recommend it to people who like psychological thrillers but I warn you, there is some really gruesome imagery that it might be hard to get through. The novel is definitely on par with Gone Girl, but due to how depressing and disturbing it is, I understand why it didn't get nearly the same level of acclaim. But that's alright, I'll still see the movie.