There is something deeply unhealthy about this book; it's in the characters, in the story, in the relationships, in the sex, and just in the general mood of the novel. Reading this made me feel a little unwell, both physically and mentally, but I am glad I did. If you know me, you'll know I love complex characters with issues that feel raw and real rather than melodramatic. The people in this novel are majorly fucked up, no one is without a dark past and everyone, it seems, has a horror story.
The protagonist - Camille Preaker - was just thirteen when her sister died and fuelled by grief (amongst other things) Camille spent her teen years carving words into her flesh, covering almost every inch of her body with the marks of her pain. This could have brought the angst meter off the scale but Flynn handled it expertly, with just the right amount of sadness, frustration and gore. Ten years later, Camille Preaker is now a journalist who returns to the small town of her youth to report on the murders of two young girls - the girls showed no signs of sexual abuse, but all their teeth had been removed.
Camille is soon caught up in the town once again, she tries to get along with the mother who never loved her and establish a relationship with the troublesome half sister she hardly knows. It seems that once again small towns hold the biggest secrets and Camille finds herself getting dragged deeper and deeper into the investigation, her fragile state of mind constantly threatening to tip her over the edge.
This is one mean and nasty book. I knew I was getting a dark, psychological thriller, but I expected something on par with In The Woods. In Tana French's novels everyone has a deeply explored personality, but it seems that in Gillian Flynn's novels everyone has a deeply explored problem and Flynn never shies away from the details. You're not going to find anything pleasant in this story; sex, for example, is never simply for physical pleasure, it's an escape or a bargain or a catharsis. Everything else is similar.
In a world where women are victims - both in their media representation as "damsels in distress" and in statistics - this is a very interesting look at "evil" women. We are always less surprised when a man is arrested for raping/torturing/killing, it's programmed into us to believe that women are safer, kinder, built with an instinct that makes it difficult for them to be cruel and cause pain without reason. Upon interviewing the parents of Moors murders victims before the culprits were caught, they said they couldn't understand it because they'd always told their kids not to go off with men they didn't know. But they never warned them not to go off with women they didn't know, the idea was unthinkable. Times are changing, but a lot of the old ideas still linger: surely a woman wouldn't hurt a child? Surely a mother would never harm her children?
Yet, Flynn does an excellent job of challenging this idea. She shows how women can be cold, calculating and cruel. And I'm sure it will displease a lot of readers, but it fascinated me.