Author Gillian Flynn has a fantastic essay on her website titled “I Was Not a Nice Little Girl.” In it, she talks about torturing everything from ants to other children and seeking out pornography as a child, normalizing this behavior that falls squarely into the “boys will be boys” mentality but is taboo to talk about when it comes to little girls.
Flynn continues, “Female violence is a specific brand of ferocity. It’s invasive. A girlfight is all teeth and hair, spit and nails — a much more fearsome thing to watch than two dudes clobbering each other. And the mental violence is positively gory.”
Until I read her insights, I hadn’t really thought about what passes for “evil” in fictional female characters. Sure, we get plenty of female killers and abusers, and we can universally agree that is bad, just as bad as it is when men do it. However, women get pegged as evil when they are emotionally withholding, overly ambitious, sexually aggressive, or interpersonally exploitative. Those same qualities are considered explicable and sometimes admirable in men. Just look at Don Draper. Assign those attributes to a woman, you get Meryl Streep being called a “devil.”
Flynn as a writer instinctively knows this, and with all her female protagonists and antagonists, she aims right at the heart of the reader, not the sweet, precious spot men and women wear on our sleeves, but the darkness beyond where our most shameful secrets and desires are purposefully hidden. There is a reason why we can relate to these women, both the villains and the antiheroes, and it’s not because we’re all perfect people free of guilt and lecherous or damaging thoughts.
Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects is the story of Camille Preaker, an emotionally disturbed adult who grew up rich in a poor town. Now a journalist, she is assigned to return to her Missouri home town of Wind Gap to report on the murder of a local child. Having carved her body with words to the point where she only has one unmarred spot, a disc on her back where her arms cannot reach, it is clear she must have suffered some kind of abuse as a child.
A cutter and an alcoholic (to cope with her emotional anguish), Camille is not a hero easy to comprehend, and quite honestly, she’s not always easy to root for. Add to the mix Camille’s half-sister, fourteen-year-old Amma. Amma is presented initially as a typical mean girl, but as the layers of her sociopathy are peeled away, it becomes unclear if maybe she’s the real villain, not their mother, who knows a little too much about the dead girl and cannot adequately explain how her second daughter perished so many years ago. It is difficult for the reader to discern who to focus suspicions on because every character has flaws and moments of insanity, but they are all disturbingly human moments. There’s nothing we can point to in any of the characters as being that dark and evil “other,” and that’s what makes this story so spellbinding. Like Camille, we don’t know who we can believe, who can be trusted, and who is ultimately going to lead to her demise if she does not solve the mystery soon.
In Sharp Objects, readers become so enmeshed in Camille’s world that they find themselves sympathetic to the urge to maim oneself, understanding of why a grown woman would sleep with a teenager, and forgiving of borderline suicidal alcoholism. Flynn’s subtle yet masterful assertion that Camille is normal in her dysfunction is what makes this novel engrossing; she becomes one of those characters that sticks with you long after the book is over. She’s very real, and her story goes on.
Dark Places is Flynn’s second novel, and our protagonist is a lazy, whiny, dysfunctional individual named Libby Day. Contrary to Camille, it is a bit easier to understand Libby’s madness given that she witnessed her entire family being slaughtered when she was just seven-years-old. Libby describes herself as “not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.” That kind of highly evocative and richly dark description is what makes Flynn a standout among other modern fiction writers. Almost imperceptibly, you are part of the protagonist’s world. Flynn does not waste time with exhausting pages of description, she weaves the tone and setting into the plot seamlessly in a way that even the most seasoned authors of moody literature could learn something from.
Libby is in desperate need of money, so she agrees to look into what really happened to her family in order to be paid by a fringe group of lunatics who believe her brother Ben has been imprisoned for this crime unjustly. The story is told in a split narrative, focusing on Libby’s efforts in the present day to uncover the truth about the murders, but also following Ben and Libby’s mother on the day of the crime, unwinding the secrets leading to that fateful night. The red herrings in this story are well-placed and beautifully timed—as a reader you’re not aware that you’re banking on those to pan out until the rug is pulled from under you. Much like Camille, you start by not particularly liking, trusting, or understanding Libby, but as she grows and changes, you become her biggest cheerleader even if she can’t manage to cheer for herself.
In my opinion, this is Flynn’s most well-crafted novel, and it has one of the most satisfying endings you will ever find in modern mystery fiction. Every piece of the puzzle is firmly locked into place by the last page, but you cannot see the whole picture until that moment. This is a book with a difficult subject matter, populated by challenging characters, yet it manages to be a rapid page-turner. The best compliment I can give any split-narrative book is that I never felt like skimming a section focusing on any particular character. They were all important, they were all frightening and relevant, and in the end, you desperately want to reach back in time to fix the little things that led to the massacre. In that moment, you truly understand Libby, and having a moment of complete clarity like that is a rare gift in any mystery.
Flynn’s most recent novel, Gone Girl, is somewhat of a departure from the archetypes presented in her first two books. This novel starts on the day Amy Dunne disappears from her home. Our narrator for the first half of the novel is Nick, Amy’s husband, and Amy’s own journal entries. At the outset, the reader firmly believes Nick is a decent guy who doesn’t know what happened to his wife. Then, as his selfishness and infidelity are exposed and you learn more from Amy’s journal entries, you find yourself completely unsure if Nick is the guy he’s telling you he is, the guy he’s desperately insisting to you he is, or a wife-killer.
As a reader who has delved into these “he-said/she-said” novels before, I was expecting the events to unravel predictably. They did not. In Flynn fashion, the second half of the novel shatters any preconceived notions you might have about how the story is going to play out. Flynn almost deconstructs her own writing style in this novel. The book starts with two likable, normal people and gradually twists them into husks of the people you thought they were, and by the end of the book, you will delightfully detest both Nick and Amy. This is not an easy feat. At a certain point, you get a pit in your stomach because you see the end coming, but you think it’s not going to happen. You need to believe one of these people will come to their senses and act rationally. Flynn manages to pull off an ending that manages to be dismal without being gory, disheartening without being undeserved, and disturbing to the very core.
In all three of Flynn’s novels, she takes everything we know about female protagonists, everything we as readers have come to expect and believe is good, turns it inside out, and presents us with a new kind of woman, one who is flawed beyond measure, who might not have a good heart, but who nonetheless deserves our support. These are not books about women for women, these are books anyone who loves a good mystery will enjoy, plus you will be given superior work in voice and tone, novels that put you immediately in the hero’s world and demand that you open your eyes, stop judging, and pay attention.
Maybe Flynn wasn’t a nice little girl. However, if being a bit outside the norm is what prompted her to write books like these, I personally don’t care how many ants had to die to get her there. Just when I thought I’d read every type of hero there was, along came Gillian Flynn. Dark Places is my favorite of her works simply because the ending is so gratifying, but it’s hard to choose. Go and read one. You won’t be disappointed.