Book Review – Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

darkplaces Synopsis: “I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.”

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” As her family lay dying, little Libby fled their tiny farmhouse into the freezing January snow. She lost some fingers and toes, but she survived–and famously testified that her fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Twenty-five years later, Ben sits in prison, and troubled Libby lives off the dregs of a trust created by well-wishers who’ve long forgotten her.

The Kill Club is a macabre secret society obsessed with notorious crimes. When they locate Libby and pump her for details–proof they hope may free Ben–Libby hatches a plan to profit off her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with the players from that night and report her findings to the club . . . and maybe she’ll admit her testimony wasn’t so solid after all.

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members–including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started–on the run from a killer.

A few days have passed since I finished reading Dark Places and I am over the usual despondency and jealousy that overcomes me when reading a novel by Gillian Flynn. I am despondent because I fear I will never be as good a writer as Flynn and I am jealous at her ability to write a novel, completely populated with unsympathetic characters, and somehow make the reader care what happens to them. It is interesting to look back the characters across her novels. The one I would consider the most traditional, or at least the one we as readers have been conditioned to expect to be the heroine (beautiful, successful) is the most f&*ked up of them all. Flynn turns character creation and introduction on its head, highlighting all of their faults  before revealing, over the course of the novel, why these people are worthy of our support.

Dark Places alternates between Libby’s perspective in the present day and her brother, Ben’s, and mother’s perspective in 1985. The 80s are remembered by many as halcyon days, days of prosperity and happiness. In reality, the 80s were kind of shitty for a large portion of the country. Flynn captures that with the ridiculously poor Day family and how their poverty and hopelessness drives the story to the inevitable outcome. It is brutal and eye-opening. I had forgotten how much of a boogeyman devil worship was in the 80s. It seems ridiculous, now, but it was very real at the time. Of course, we are always trying to explain away why people do horrible things to others. Look no further than to Aurora, Sandy Hook, Columbine and our need to have a convenient reason – mental illness, video games, violence in entertainment – why these people do atrocious acts. In the 80s, it was Satan.

Some people might be offended by the way Flynn deftly skewers child psychologists and how they can plant ideas, or expand the lies, of impressionable children who only want to make the adults around them happy. A counterbalance to that would have been nice, but Flynn isn’t about counterbalance. She is all about ripping off the scab to show the scars underneath, whether we want to see them or not.

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