“Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn (2009)

20 Oct

I remember a letter to a satirical magazine I read once; the gist of it was basically this:

Why is it that whenever someone is a victim of a tragic accident or crime, they’re described as having been the ‘life and soul of the party’ with loads of friends?  As a dull and boring person with no friends, I feel remarkably safe!

The letter writer clearly intended it as humour, but I think it also raises a couple of important points:

  1. Is it really true?  Is it really only the popular, wonderful people who become victims of accidents or crime? Seriously?!
  2. More importantly, does the value of a person’s life really depend on their sociability and gregariousness?

The letter writer highlighted the media’s habit of applying a rose tint to anyone who happens to be a victim of tragedy.  This apparently indiscriminately applied rose tint is not only unrealistic but also suggests that if a person is a quiet loner, their untimely death would be somehow less important.
In reality, everybody is a mix of good and bad, nice and nasty.  So why should we need to have a person’s negative aspects hidden from view in order to recognise the importance of their life?

So how does this relate to Gillian Flynn’s second novel “Dark Places”?

Well, this novel opens with the narrator Libby Day saying:

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ…. It’s the Day blood.”

24 years prior, the then 7 year old Libby escaped an attack on her family that left her mother and two sisters dead: one shot, one strangled and one chopped with an axe.

Spoiler Alert: this post contains some details of the story; however, there is still plenty of the story left unrevealed.

Libby’s brother Ben, aged 15 at the time of the murders, is convicted and jailed, yet he is innocent. And much of the story is focussed on the search for the truth and the eventual success of that search.  So how is Ben Day portrayed?  A gentle, nice guy, poor victim of a horrific injustice? Not entirely, no. OK, there are some elements of that in his character, but he is far from perfect either.

Conversely, some positive sides of one of the actual killers are shown too.

And of course, Libby is deserving of sympathy for her ordeal, however much of a ‘meanness’ she may have inside her – as we all have some degree of meanness within us, don’t we?

This is one of the strengths of this story.  It shows people as they are really are: nobody is entirely good or entirely evil. An obvious point perhaps, but one that often seems suppressed in media accounts.

On top of this strength is one of Gillian Flynn’s other strengths: to write an incredibly captivating (there could be a pun there) story.  The reader becomes intimately acquainted with the characters and their lives:

  • Libby Day as a traumatised, embittered young woman, struggling to maintain some form of emotional stability.
  • Ben Day as an under-confident young man, desperate to find some identity for himself, and thus prone to being manipulated and bullied.
  • Patty Day as an exhausted mother, dealing with poverty and a crisis affecting her son Ben.  The emotional intensity of Flynn’s writing is amazing!

Gillian Flynn also has an amazing ability to create a 3-dimensional moving image in the reader’s mind: as vivid as any film I’ve seen.  And the flipping between 1985 and 2009 invokes some nostalgia, which takes the edge off the dark and bleak subject of the story.

This is no happy story, but it is an engaging and captivating one.

Finally, to return to the subject of rose-tinting in the media, you may be interested in a post on my friend’s blog (external content for which I’m not responsible):

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5 Responses to ““Dark Places” by Gillian Flynn (2009)”

  1. 5i5i October 20, 2015 at 11:16 pm #

    Very much agree with the point being raised here.

    Everyone is capable of nasty behaviour. Prof Zimbardo / Dr Milgram showed that to great effect in their various psychological tests. They both showed how people will actively harm others given certain influences.

    “Oh, noooo” you might be thinking, “not me. It’s just those other people that do that kind of thing”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_prison_experiment

    I think part of the issue here is that accepting that other people – even women – can do nasty things to others, means that we must in turn accept that we ourselves can do nasty things under certain influences. We must accept that as humans we all have a darker side.

    But, but… if we understand the influences that people like Milgram found, then we can avoid being influenced by them.

    And this is what Zimbardo is working on now with his Hero Project – teaching teenagers how to be the one that stands up to bad behaviour.

    • Jenkins1974 October 21, 2015 at 10:52 pm #

      I’ll have to take a look at those links you’ve posted when I get a moment; I vaguely remember hearing something about a prison experiment…

  2. Cathy746books October 21, 2015 at 4:19 am #

    I had to skim read this as I have it in my TBR and wanted to avoid spoilers. I liked Gone Girl a lot, but Sharp Objects not so much. I’m hoping that Dark Places is somewhere in between!

    • Jenkins1974 October 21, 2015 at 10:46 pm #

      I agree that in many ways “Sharp Objects” wasn’t as good as “Gone Girl” (I still liked both though). I thought “Dark Places” was probably the best of the three.

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