Gillian Flynn is pretty. She has a nice smile, big brown eyes and an open, friendly face. On closer examination, however, there’s something wrong about that smile, something sardonic. And her eyes look so directly and unblinkingly at the camera that one feels a challenge has been leveled. I think the challenge is, “Read this!”
“This” is Flynn’s debut novel, “Sharp Objects.” It’s a story that shreds the image of pretty little girls in bows and pigtails, women as the weaker sex, women as precious and vulnerable, women as we thought we knew them. Flynn’s women and girls are right out of the Brothers Grimm, or Bedlam, or Macbeth.
Where does this pretty young wife and mother, born in Kansas City, Missouri, raised by two apparently loving, intelligent parents derive the malice that permeates her book? How does a happily married mother and pet owner come up with this evil that coagulates on the pages of her book?
It is a mystery perhaps equal to that of “Sharp Objects,” a story of the murder of two young girls, whose bodies are discovered oddly preened and made up, but with most teeth having been pulled. The little town of Wind Gap, Missouri, an 11-hour drive south of Chicago, is abuzz with rumor and gossip, but it turns out that the good people of Wind Gap are prone to rumor and gossip anyway; it doesn’t take a couple of gruesome murders to set tongues flapping, but it’s a welcome diversion for people living in a community whose economy derives primarily from raising hogs and processing them into hams.
Flynn’s story is narrated by ‘Camille Preaker,’ a thirty-something woman learning her trade as a reporter at a third tier newspaper in Chicago. Her editor, presented as something of a cliche´ in Flynn’s book, learns of the murders in Wind Gap and knowing that his young reporter is originally from Wind Gap, asks her to go there and cover the story. He does so with some misgivings, because Camille is one troubled young woman. Camille suffered from a cutting disorder as a child growing up under the cloying care of her mother, Adora, the hog plant-owning matriarch of Wind Gap. Flynn’s Adora takes her place among literature’s most unforgettable mothers, making Sophie Portnoy seem nothing to complain about.
Camille retains her urge to inflict pain on herself and it is only through great determination and copious amounts of vodka and other alcoholic libations that she seems able to resist sharp objects and the urge to carve words into her flesh; wretched, queasy, spiteful, omen.
Returning to Wind Gap, Camille encounters her 13-year-old half sister, Amma, who also enjoys inflicting pain, but her urges are turned outward. Flynn’s portrayal of Camille’s experience getting to know her mother again, and her teen half-sister is frighteningly believable. We can’t help but utter under our breath, “Don’t do that,” but we know she will and we know bad things will happen, and we can’t wait to turn the page and read about them.