Gillian Flynn is best known for her best-selling novel, Gone Girl, which was subsequently made into a very successful movie with top-of-the-line stars including Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck, and Neil Patrick Harris. I loved that book when it came out in 2012 and also enjoyed it thoroughly when I re-read it a few years ago. Which is why when I was unable to find something compelling to read for a few months, I turned to one of her earlier books, Dark Places, which was published in 2009. While I have already read that book — I bought it shortly after I was mesmerized by Gone Girl — it’s been a while and I had little to no recollection of the plot. So re-reading it would be almost like reading a new book by Gillian Flynn, with an assurance that I would enjoy it. Because what I do remember about Dark Places when I read it the first time is that I really liked it.
The plot in brief — The protagonist is a woman called Libby Day, who suffered a brutal tragedy when she was a kid. Her family grew up dirt poor in Kansas, and one night, her mother and her two older sisters were massacred. Her brother, Ben, who was 15 at that time, was arrested for the murders, partially based on Libby’s testimony — even though she was only 7 years old then and very suggestible – and partly because of the lack of any other suspects or any other evidence pointing to anyone else. He was convicted and is now in prison. Libby was quite close to Ben when she was a kid, but she severed ties with him when he was arrested and is no longer in touch. This changes once she gets commissioned by the members of a “Kill Club” looking into the murders, who are convinced that Ben is innocent. Libby needs the money and starts looking at the case again, chasing down all the people who were involved. This, eventually, leads to the truth coming out about what really happened that day.
The story is told in two alternating timelines, one set in the present day and told from Libby’s first-person point of view, and the other on the day of the murders, told from a third person point of view at different times that day, following both Ben as well as his mother, Patty. It gives you a sense of how that day unfolds, starting from the morning to late at night when the murders happened. The suspense is maintained throughout, and you get to know what really happened that day only at the end of the book.
Meanwhile, in the current timeline, you get to be inside Libby’s head and feel the sense of hopelessness and depression that she lives with every day. She has never really recovered from the trauma of what happened to her and her family, and it is only the money that she is offered for looking at the murders again — which she needs, as she has come to the end of the charitable contributions that poured in to help her as the only survivor of the massacres — that pulls her up and forces her to function. As she starts to dig deeper into the events of that day and start hunting down the different people involved, she begins to get more interested in finding out the truth for its own sake rather than just for the money she is being offered to look into it. She also reconnects with Ben and even makes another friend, of sorts, so that, in addition to the murder mystery being solved at the end, there is some kind of resolution to her life as well.
I think what elevates a book like this from a run-of-the-mill potboiler is the quality of the writing. I found it amazing and so authentic, all the way from capturing the details of life in poor farming communities in Kansas to the breakdown of Libby’s life after the murders and the permanent damage it has done to her psyche. You can get a sense of this from the starting lines of the book itself, which is from Libby’s first-person point of view in the present moment:
I have a meanness inside of 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. Something’s wrong with it. I was never a good little girl, and I got worse after the murders. Little Orphan Libby grew up sullen and boneless, shuffled around a group of lesser relatives – second cousins and great-aunts and friends of friends – stuck in a series of mobile homes or rotting ranch houses all across Kansas.
Such is the quality of the writing throughout the book – so compelling, so gripping, that you don’t want to miss a word.
What a gift! And how lucky we are to be able to enjoy the fruits of it.
Gillian Flynn deserves every bit of the success that has come to her so far.
Author: Gillian Flynn
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group (Random House)
Publication Date: May 2009 (1st edition)
Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani