Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Family reunions suck. Everyone knows that. You’re forced by your mother to hang out with people you’re barely related to and haven’t seen in years, eat bad food and drink flat soda, and then sometime before you leave, someone is bound to bring up something from your childhood that you’ve successfully managed to block out over the years…until now. Oh, then there’s the pictures. Why do all the aunties have a picture of you naked except for your grandmother’s flowered shower cap on your head and swimming in a large metal trashcan filled with water from a garden hose? Did your mother print multiple copies of it at the Kodak Store and pass it out to everyone she knows? But Libby Day doesn’t have this problem. Because everyone in her family, except for her brother and herself, is dead. And Libby told the police that her brother did it.

I have a meanness in me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood.

The Plot as I Understood it That poor Libby Day…God bless her heart. When she was seven years old, her mother Patty and two older sisters were slaughtered in what the newspapers call the Kinnakee Satanic Massacre on January 3, 1985, and Libby told the police that her fifteen-year-old brother Ben did it. After Ben goes to prison for life, Libby is shuffled from one distant relative to the next, living in trailer parks and trapped in situations not much better than what she was born with. Over the years, she has made enough money to live on from interviews, well-wishers who’ve sent cash to the poor Day girl, and cheap, exploitative true crime stuff, but that money is about to run out and Libby has never held a job in her life. She has done quite well isolating herself from the rest of the world; she has no friends and isn’t in touch with any of her relatives, not even her Aunt Diane, who was her mother’s sister. When a true crime fan club called The Kill Club, a “secret” society of nerds obsessed with notoriously grisly crimes, approaches Libby with some money and an invitation to a true crime convention, Libby is tempted to them to fuck off, but she is desperate for money and this bunch of losers might bring her some much needed cash flow. For several years, Libby has fended off attacks from lovelorn women—the same kind of women who write to serial killers in prison—who accuse her of lying about what really happened on the night of the murders because Ben couldn’t have done it. Besides, it was dark that night and Libby was only seven years old and hungry and scared and tired and probably coached by the cops and isn’t it possible that their father Runner Day was the one who did it? Libby is accustomed to dealing with these women, but she didn’t anticipate facing an entire group of people who are all convinced that Ben Day is innocent and all of them have alternate theories. Because she’s a blood relative to Ben and Runner, the Kill Club is convinced the two men will talk to only Libby and tell her what really happened. Libby demands an allowance in return and at first, she tells herself she is only doing it for the money, but as she delves deeper into the events that unfolded January 3, 1985, she begins to doubt that Ben may have anything to do with the slaughter of her family and wonders if she may have aroused the interest of the real killer with her amateur sleuthing.

Meanwhile, interspersed with Libby’s present-day narrative are chapters leading up to the day of the slaughter from the points of view of her desperate, perpetually exhausted mother and her sullen fifteen-year-old brother Ben who at first appears to be an average teenager with the usual adolescent angst. Her mother Patty Day is constantly harassed by her estranged husband Runner for money and the bank is about to foreclose on the neglected, deteriorating farm that has been owned by her family for several years. On top of her financial concerns, Patty finds herself watching her eldest son with mounting worry as he’s taken to screaming at his younger sisters with no provocation, dressing like a depressed hoodlum, and securing his bedroom door with a padlock. And it’s getting harder for her to ignore the rumors buzzing around their small town that Ben has been hanging out with satanists and taking a special, creepy interest in the little girls who attend the same school as his sisters. Patty’s sister Diane is her biggest ally as Diane brings the family food whenever she visits and the girls seem to listen to Diane even as they ignore Patty. Ben, on the other hand, is just… angry. He’s angry that his father Runner is a piece-of-shit loser who does nothing to help his family and the farm; he’s angry that he’s a nobody at his high school; he’s angry that his girlfriend is treating him like shit and taking him for granted. Let people think he’s a satanist and a drug addict; at least they’ll be scared of him instead of laughing at him while talking shit behind his back. And he’s just… sick of everything. He’s sick of his weak, pathetic mother who doesn’t know how to fight back and he’s even sicker of his sisters who bug him all the time and won’t leave him alone. He often fantasizes about running away with his girlfriend and getting a job somewhere, saving what little money he can so he can just take off and go. But his girlfriend has been treating him like crap lately and there’s this girl, Chrissy, who’s so pretty and nice to him… Sure, she’s still in elementary school, but she seems so mature… and she’s so…sweet…and different from his drunk, abusive girlfriend…

Your Lovely Protagonist Libby Day is not a nice person. She’s inwardly resentful of the cute, little missing white girls that the media splashes all over the TV and newspapers and wonders how much money their families are being sent. Libby herself made a living from well-wishers sending her cards and letters with some money in them because they feel bad about the little red-haired girl whose entire family was murdered by her brother. For years, Libby has been banking on the guilt and kindness of others, and she is totally okay with it. Now that she’s not so young and not so cute, the money has stopped coming and since she’s never worked a day in her life, doesn’t have any other way to make a living.

I was not a lovable child, and I’d grown into a deeply unlovable adult. Draw a picture of my soul, and it’d be a scribble with fangs.

As you can see, Libby is not the happiest person in the world, either. She has no friends and hasn’t spoken to any of her relatives in years, not even her Aunt Diane. She keeps to herself, preferring to stay within the walls of her house, almost agoraphobic. Even when she is approached by the Kill Club to help find out who really killed her family, she is reluctant to do so. She doesn’t want to believe that she sent her only brother to prison where he’d been cooling his heels for the last twenty-five years. She doesn’t really want to relive the memories that she’d worked so hard to forget. Or at least stop thinking about. The only thing that convinces her to help the Kill Club is the money they offer her in exchange. Libby is not a sympathetic character, but she is merely a product of her own environment. She was born and raised poor; her mother was murdered and her father is a homeless, alcoholic drunk; she was shuffled from one relative to another while growing up, never truly experiencing a steady home life. She is haunted by the fact that she told the police she saw Ben killing her family, but in truth, she only heard what was going on. And yet her testimony was enough to send her brother to prison. She doesn’t want to even imagine that she was wrong about Ben; if she were truly wrong about the events of that night and her brother had gone to prison for twenty-five years just on her say-so… it’s just not something that Libby likes to think about. If it’s all the same to everyone else, Libby would just like to get on with her life and to hell with everyone else. I wouldn’t call Libby selfish, exactly. She has learned over the years to protect and defend herself; she has never really been able to depend on anyone. She is altogether not too likable, but I understand why she is the way she is. A person couldn’t survive a massacre of her entire family and the subsequent rehashing of the events all over the media for several years with her sanity and optimism intact. Libby knows she can only count on herself and most of the time, she doesn’t have her own best interest at heart, either. She is a surly, self-serving misanthrope and was made that way by her circumstances and her own environment. She couldn’t have turned out any other way.

Oh My Word This book has a smell: stale sweat, cheap gin, cigarette smoke, and deep-friend food, the kind of stench ingrained deep in the cushions of the stools at your local dive bar. And that’s a compliment. What I really enjoy about Gillian Flynn’s writing is how stark and beautifully ugly it is. The padlock on the cover of this novel is really spot on: it symbolizes the heavy lock that Libby had placed on both her emotional and mental memories. Intellectually and emotionally, she doesn’t want to remember what happened the night she accused her brother of murdering their entire family; she can’t. Her thread-thin tether on her own sanity depends solely on the fact that her brother Ben was the true killer, the one who slaughtered not just her mother and sisters, but any chance she might have had of a home life with people who cared about her. And Libby’s not the only one who wants a lock-down on everything. Ben is also unwilling to share with Libby his memories of what happened that night and he might be the only person who knows what really went down. He has “forgiven” Libby, but he doesn’t want to talk about what happened; he just wants to move forward. It could also be said that the padlock represents the “closed” minds of the people in their small town; Ben was convicted in the eyes of the town before he was even arrested and charged because of the “Day blood.” It wasn’t a surprise to them that Ben would commit this atrocious act because they believe that all the Days are bad and crazy and liable to pull shit like this. This is where Flynn excels as a writer: she is able to make you feel and smell the “smallness” of this town and its people, the dark places they all harbor. There’s a particularly alarming scene in the novel where Ben is approached by Chrissy, the pre-pubescent girl he’s accused of molesting: Chrissy is described to be older than she looks; there is something seductive about her, in the way she dresses and the way she acts (she dresses like a flirtatious teenager, wears make-up, and seems to know an awful lot about sex). There’s an implication that Chrissy may also be getting molested at home, but as a reader, I could see why Ben was like, “Yeah, okay, this is wrong. But she’s hot.” THAT’S CREEPY. I don’t want to be thinking it’s cool to make out with an eleven-year-old girl, Gillian Flynn, don’t put that image in my head! And Gillian Flynn really excels at presenting ugly, disgusting things in an oddly seductive way that could make them appealing enough to someone who might be able to rationalize that it’s all kosher. Sure, I can blow off school and drink with my Satanist friends. Sure, I can make out with this hot eleven-year-old girl. ARRRGH! BRAIN BLEACH, STAT! And this is what makes her novels so compelling; Flynn is like the tour guide in a fucked-up tour bus through the deepest, darkest parts of your brain that you work so hard to suppress everyday. She’s gleefully willing to take you there for a price of a tiny, microscopic part of your soul.

And yet there’s something so melodramatic, so tawdry about all of it that reading this book is like having a Lifetime (television for women in peril!) movie unfold right in front of you. You can smell the mold and the stale beer and other undesirable bodily fluids on the dirty mattresses where no-good delinquents may take their skankettes for some juvie hall-flavored bone-down; you can feel the tightness and the stuffy heat of the cramp, dark trailers; you can hear the growling of hungry stomachs and the long-suffering sighs of an soul-weary, mentally-fatigued mother who knows in her heart that her children are never going to rise above poverty or make something of themselves. The gritty realism and the beautifully stark, brutal prose are what elevates this novel from your usual whodunit thrillers. The identity of the killer and whether or not Libby will ever find peace are almost irrelevant; what’s more important is the parsing of the characters and their motivations. In fact, the “big reveal” at the end was almost disappointingly conventional and tonally different. Did I really read a chase scene straight out of an Ashley Judd movie? Gillian Flynn is unafraid to explore the darkness of the human condition and expose the ugliness she unearths from within, yet the ending was just kind of… meh. Libby doesn’t change by the end of the book; in fact, she might be just slightly more damaged, having opened herself to fresh, new hell and a barrage of wounds both physical and emotional. It’s an ugly, dark book and yet, it’s probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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3 thoughts on “Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

  1. Meljean

    Oh, I agree 100% Everything is so ugly and depressing, yet so fascinating or recognizable as true (especially the kind of stuff we wouldn't want to admit to ourselves) and wonderful. I loved this book a lot.

    I have to read Gone Girl next, but I'm preparing myself for it.

  2. Jenny Lyn

    My finger keeps hovering over the "buy" button on this one. I read Gone Girl and loved it, despite the ending. It was a bit disappointing but Gillian just makes you feel so many emotions as you read you're absolutely strung out when it's over. I needed a few days to simply process everything, and *for me* that's the mark of a great book. She has the incredible ability to write characters that are horrible people, that you just cannot like or sympathize with, yet you keep turning pages, drinking their stories down like wine. It's brilliant.

    And it's for those reasons that I've waited to read Dark Places and Sharp Objects. Weird, I know, but I almost need to be in the correct headspace for it. Also, because I tend to get so caught up that I ignore everything else. My family is not amused when they have to eat a PB&J for dinner whilst I read. 🙂


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