I am like a literature sponge. When I read something I really enjoy I find myself absorbing the moods and attitudes of the characters, suddenly looking at everything in my own life and seeing a tint of fiction, the struggles or thoughts of the protagonists in my book manipulating my world view. This experience can be exciting, the opportunity to really engage in the mind-set of the characters or even author, but sometimes it can be disarming and almost disturbing.
It all depends on the book. Last week, I finished Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. I absolutely loved Gone Girl and a friend had read Dark Places and recommended it to me several times, so I finally decided to get into it. Dark Places is the story of Libby Day whose mother and two sisters were murdered when she was seven years old, her brother going to jail for the crime. Obviously this was not a light-hearted book. Like Gone Girl it followed the dark story of violent crime, pulling the reader into graphic details of the gruesome murders and the unsettling events that led to them. Having book empathy with this novel caused a few problems for me. The story beings two decades after the murders, with Libby Day now a grown woman, still damaged and dealing with the trauma of her past. Libby’s attitude to the world around her is gruff, she struggles through life, barely existing off the dwindling fortune allotted to her in the aftermath of the murders. I found myself reading a chapter on the train, then watching my fellow commuters with suspicion. The darkness of Libby’s life both past and present began to mesh with my own day-to-day experience.
One of Flynn’s greatest talents as a writer is her ability to recreate the conflicted human psyche. No character in this story is the picture of mental health, no one is without their struggles. The way that Flynn characterizes these people allows you to truly enter their mindset, understand their stresses and the paths they follow. I found this particularly with Ben Day, Libby’s only remaining sibling who she testifies against after the murders when she is only seven years old. Ben’s story is hopeless. He’s a teenage boy wrapped up in things beyond his control, and all of his focalisation has this intense feel of desperation. Desperation to be accepted, to get away, to be someone else. These characters are deep, their problems escalated to dramatic proportions – Flynn creates these intense interludes into their lives that throw you off balance, make you re-evaluate everything you know so far.
I’ve always enjoyed mystery. I love trying to guess the twist before it happens. Flynn’s construction of this novel fed me tiny snippets of information, breaking apart the day the murders took place into bite-sized sections, slowly unravelling the truth of what really happened. After every chapter I’d formed a new theory, or had a new suspect. The book was filled with strange events, suspicious characters and unfortunate coincidences, and it only fuelled my desire to oust the killer. In the last 100 pages of the novel, I was unable to put it down, I was desperate to have my theories confirmed. That was what I loved about this book. Although it was no Gone Girl, Dark Places had a certain pull which gripped me, forced me to engage with the murders, with Libby’s difficult but lovable character, pushing me to find answers for this confusing crime.