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"Sharp Objects" (2007) was the first novel by Gillian Flynn, an American authoress who has received fairly widespread praise for all her first three novels (so far) due to her ability to focus rather chillingly on severe dysfunction and psychologically disturbing happenings to great effect. "Sharp Objects" centres around a reporter Camille Preaker situated in Chicago who is sent back to her hometown Wind Gap in Missouri under strict orders from her boss to try to get the scoop on what appears to be a serial killer in their midst. One girl had been found strangled the year before and now another is missing, but why is Camille so reluctant to return home after eight years away, especially to visit her mother, for what should be a story that could really put her and her paper on the map? Camille finds herself not only battling against a tight-lipped town plus the horrors that come with investigating a potential serial killer but also some resurrected long forgotten personal demons from her own past - can she successfully help unearth a killer whilst keeping her sanity or will her homecoming end in disaster?
As debut novels go this one certainly gets your attention. This book starts at a fairly even pace getting to know our characters and the small town setting by whetting the appetite subtly with just a few juicy morsels revealed to hold the interest...but then it gets dark. And it stays dark. Told in the first person narrative from Camille's perspective you are instantly privy to her inner thoughts and feelings and you soon learn that she is a very complex and very damaged individual prone to making some bad and often self-destructive decisions, but the reasons behind this are hard to come by which makes her an intriguing enigma to solve and it is a fascinating arc throughout as her past is gradually revealed. Despite being a character of many flaws she is still somehow a likeable and sympathetic protagonist which is skilfully done in my opinion as she could be easily off-putting in the wrong hands. Her interactions with other characters too are often highly dysfunctional, especially with her family, and make for some wonderfully disturbing relationship dynamics with a gripping psychological edge to it that are frankly quite chilling at times with certain events and behaviours occurring which may well instil you with a sense of morbid curiosity.
As a non-American the style of the book is helpfully very rich in detail and description (albeit slightly biased from Camille's perspective) which builds up a nice picture of just how life is in such a small American town with their collective attitudes, especially to outsiders, and wealth divide as well as what that area of Missouri was like with forests exhibiting jungle like qualities which I found set the scene really well for me and gave me a lot of insight into the rather claustrophobic setting where everybody knows everybody and everything about their business which I think also adds another psychological layer to the proceedings with a sense of being under constant scrutiny with nowhere to hide. Camille's need to almost over-describe scenes and the people in them with interesting and sometimes inappropriate turns of phrases is also brilliant at bringing everything to life with the added bonus of giving further insight into the way her mind works and the rather cynically detached way she views the world.
So despite being quite a character driven story, the actual murder plot itself is neatly interwoven with Camille's personal experiences and holds an equal weighting throughout the story as a whole, and due to us only being privy to pertinent case related information as Camille herself discovers it, it means we are cunningly kept in the dark for as long as necessary by the author, although if you look hard enough I'm certain clues are there for the eagle-eyed readers just not me, which I personally feel makes this one a tough nut to crack. Although, to be fair I've never been the best at solving crime mysteries (clearly I mean in the literary sense and not literally) - I'm not one of those people that can say "Oh yeah, I knew who the killer was in the first chapter, I mean it was SO obvious" - but I still believe the complex layers to this story with a nice array of red herrings and dead ends genuinely made for a very tricky murder mystery and I was honestly completely shocked when the full story was revealed which doesn't happen very often so kudos to Gillian Flynn for her amazing subterfuge and secret keeping abilities.
So as I mentioned before, this is a dark story and there is no getting away from this, so if you don't like psychological thrillers it might be best to stay away from this story if you are easily unsettled as the subject matter is grim, and that's me being on the polite side. Murder, and in this case child murder, is obviously a horrendous thing, and the method in this story is quite nasty (though I don't think I'm giving too much away in stating that there, thankfully, was no sexual abuse) so those with a sensitive disposition should be aware. But, given we are seeing the result of this violent act through somebody else's eyes first (especially with that somebody already having a slightly desensitized perspective) does actually add a layer of padding which somewhat deadens the initial impact just a touch, but Gillian Flynn ensures that you cannot completely escape the inexorable force of this tragic loss of young human life by exposing the raw nerve endings of those remaining characters most touched by the violence so the true horror stays with you just as you may have been about to forget which allows for a certain impetus to remain in trying to work out who the killer is and thus keeps you well and truly on the hook throughout.
There is very little respite to be had in this story once it begins snowballing, it is somewhat relentless in its nature, and I'll tell you off the bat there is certainly no comic relief to be had anywhere at all. Pretty much all the characters are grief stricken, humourless or just plainly dysfunctional and thus the grimness continues on unabated. Despite this though, I will say there is a sort of absurdity to be had from Camille's odd and highly detached perspective as I mentioned before, and her blunt and casual acceptance of the horror surrounding her, often made more palatable by some flowery and vivid prose unleashed as her meandering thoughts capture the sights and events before her I suppose could be considered a source of relief as it somewhat anaesthetises you by proxy a tad, but that in itself is probably a bit disturbing anyway, so really you have to be prepared to be dragged through the ringer on this story. I can pretty much guarantee that this story will unsettle you at best and at worst chill you to the bone, but it is a highly captivating and compelling read, as long as you have the stomach for it so don't let the apparent misery and bleakness put you off.
So, I have found Gillian Flynn to be an exciting new author for me and I will definitely be continuing to read her work as and when it comes out. I've also read her latest novel "Gone Girl", which I actually read first since it was a bit of a Kindle sensation and actually first hooked me and got me exploring her earlier work. "Gone Girl" was again a very character driven and disturbing novel but for very different reasons which I won't spoil here, but my point is Flynn is an incredibly versatile author within the realms of exploring human dysfunction and psychological trauma and writes with a captivating style and so I can thoroughly recommend "Sharp Objects" if psychological crime thrillers are your thing, but beware it is incredibly dark in nature so those of a sensitive disposition may want to steer clear.