Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Dark Spaces

Having read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl fairly recently, I was keen to sample some of her earlier work and availed myself of a copy of her second crime thriller, Dark Places, to see whether it stood up to scrutiny, notwithstanding the significant interest which has surrounded Gone Girl post publication (caveat - albeit with good reason!).

Libby Day is a mere seven years old when her mother and two sisters are murdered in what is subsequently termed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinakee, Kansas”.  She flees their farmhouse, the scene of the crime, through a window into freezing weather conditions.  Despite losing a finger and a number of toes to frostbite as a result, she survives to testify at the trial of her fifteen year old brother, Ben, who has been accused of the killings.  It is her testimony which ensures a successful conviction.  The narrative commences twenty five years later, as Ben Day serves his prison sentence and the deeply troubled Libby seeks to eke out the last remaining remnants of a trust fund created from public contributions for the victim/survivor whose situation has now been overtaken in the minds of society by more recent crimes.

Much like the more recent Gone Girl, Dark Places utilises fluctuating narrative points of view and swings between both past and present to clarify the events which have led to the situation within which the remaining siblings find themselves – the key question being was Ben Day in fact responsible for the murders of his mother and two sisters and what precisely took place on that eventful day?  The dual narrative is key to the slow reveal, emphasising the potential fallibility of memory and recall – particularly when subject to significant trauma; demonstrating the gaps between what Libby has convinced herself constitutes the truth and what actually took place.  Unsurprisingly, the two do not always marry up and we therefore find ourselves in the familiar company of an unreliable narrator – a technique recently seen to have been utilised to superb effect within Caitlin R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl

Whilst initially Libby asserts first-hand knowledge of the identity of the killer of her family, we soon learn she was hiding when the murders took place – thus, her only knowledge of them stems from what she heard, as opposed to saw.  This contrasts starkly with what she revealed within her testimony at trial and her assertions within the decades which have followed.  Soon enough, she has agreed to investigate the murders substantively at the request of the self-named “Kill Club”, a secret society obsessed with discussion surrounding notorious crimes – for a fee.

Dark Places is clearly an evocation of small town life in Midwest America.  It is, however, much more than this.  Flynn utilises the deaths of familial members as a catalyst for closer examination of a supremely dysfunctional family and its constituent parts.  In this, no aspect goes unconsidered.  The reader becomes privy to the troubled marriage of the since separated parents and the money worries which have led to the disintegration of the family farm and business, as well as the isolation experienced by their son, Ben, at school and within his own predominantly female family unit, which leads him down the path towards becoming the eponymous “troubled teen”.  Ultimately, the reputation he gains himself leads to serious accusations, even prior to the charges levied against him for murder.  Further, one of the daughters takes pleasure in collecting gossip which can be utilised for potential blackmail purposes to bolster her sense of self-importance – despite her pre-teen age.  Clearly, this raises some interesting questions concerning how much of the manner in which matters play out results from the dysfunctional family life we have been privy to and how much the family becomes subject simply to happenstance and the “wrong place wrong time” scenario, also opening up scope for debate. 

Libby Day herself is a similarly damaged individual; both physically and figuratively, scarred by the experience of the night from which she escaped as survivor and its psychological effects.  She has become a petty thief and hoarder of objects garnered from others.  She is also someone who appears to be incapable of holding down a “normal” job – hence her reliance upon the “Kill Club” fund for her survival.  We are informed she has displayed childhood aggression in the aftermath of the murders.  As such, she resembles the “dark” individuals Flynn chose to examine in her preceding novel, Sharp Objects; something she appears to take interest in as an antithesis to more typical female heroines encountered elsewhere.  For some, this will make her difficult to empathise with, notwithstanding her childhood trauma.  (How much of Libby’s inability to move forwards in life results from the wilful decision not to confront her past and reiterate the “truth” she knows to be subject to question?)  Conversely, for others, this will render her more realistic, as someone who struggles to overcome the events which have, ultimately, shaped the individual she has become.

Ultimately, family becomes important in more ways than one, once it becomes clear that it is not merely the money produced by the “Kill Club” which motivates Libby’s continued investigation concerning the murders.  Latterly, she admits she would have continued without the incentive of payment in her search to confirm the truth surrounding the events of “that night”.  Despite it being clear that her brother is reticent during discussions with her to reveal the true extent of his knowledge surrounding “that night”, Libby is also willing to believe in his innocence, if proven – despite her prior testimony.  The contributory information provided by Libby’s – now homeless – father is also vital to the continuing investigation.  This, too, points to further evidence in connection with the issue of family which comes to the fore at the denouement of the novel.

Arguably, events take a turn towards the slightly less believable in the manner in which the ultimate “reveal” plays out.  However, loose ends are suitably well tied up and the main protagonist, Libby, has demonstrated a move towards a slightly more functional way of living, having confronted the events of her past. 

In conclusion, a satisfying, well-constructed thriller which delves into the reality of a small town family and the secrets this may hide.  Dark Places also delves into the psychological darkness which may be left in the aftermath of violent trauma and struggle not to succumb.  Both chilling and thought provoking.               

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