Earlier this year I read Gillian Flynn’s latest release, Gone Girl. It was fairly high levels of amazing and made me want to read her previous titles, Sharp Objects and Dark Places. What made Gone Girl so unique was Flynn’s willingness to force readers out of their comfort zone and into the deeper and darker recesses of the human psyche. It was a psychological thriller that took the idea of an abduction novel and turned it completely on its head. Dark Places, on the other hand, touches on the truly disturbing side of human nature while looking at themes including murder, prostitution, pedophilia, Satanism and substance abuse.
Are you still with me? I hope so, because despite the sometimes-hard-to-stomach subject matter, Dark Places is a fantastic novel. It is a testament to Flynn’s skills at a writer that the story, while disturbing, never appears perverse for perverse’s sake–there are real people in the world who deal with these issues on a day-to-day basis, and Flynn exposes these themes without exploiting them for fun. It’s delicate material and Flynn writes with dignity and poise far beyond that of a writer who is only on their second novel. It’s horrible and sickening but it is a plausible real life scenario, thus making it simultaneously gripping and powerful.
On January 3 1985, a horrible crime occurred. Dubbed the ‘Farmhouse Satan Sacrifices’, the matriarch of the Day family and two of her four children were murdered. At age seven the surviving daughter, Libby, was the youngest of the four children and it was her testimony and evidence that put her surviving brother, Ben, behind bars for life. We meet Libby Day in her 30s, more than twenty years since the murder of her family.
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.
The first chapter paints a picture of Libby’s life since the murders, and it is not a pretty one. She has not achieved much in her time and has never once visited her brother in prison. On the one hand, she appears to have pushed the past aside. On the other, it’s holding her back from anything resembling a life. Libby inherited over $300k when she turned 18–the proceeds from a charity established after the murders. When Dark Places opens, the money is running out and without many options, Libby is forced with the prospect of finding a job to earn some money. Instead, she accepts a $500 offer to do a guest appearance at an event for true-crime obsessives–the organisers are thrilled with the opportunity to have the survivor of one of the country’s most infamous murders in their midst. But the event doesn’t quite go to plan. Libby is overwhelmed by ‘fans’ who believe her brother is innocent and who question her ability to accurately recall the events of that night. Disgruntled and angry, Libby leaves. But the bandage has been ripped off the wound, and Libby’s state of blissful ignorance can no longer be restored.
Libby and one of the organisers, Lyle, establish an arrangement where Libby will be paid to investigate certain details surrounding the murders that don’t add up to Ben being the killer. Dark Places crosses from the present day to the days leading up to/the day of the murders. Libby is our present day narrator, and 1985 alternates between Ben and his mother, Patty Day. As Libby edges closer to uncovering the truth in the present, the truth surrounding the day of the murders is revealed to be something more disturbing and sinister than present-day Libby can comprehend. Both her mother and brother were harbouring secrets; secrets which had the power to tear the family apart. The Day household was sick, and Libby is about to find out just how sick it was.
Dark Places is intense and macabre and entirely unsettling, but it’s well written and compelling. In short, if you can handle the above-mentioned themes, I recommend this book. I really enjoyed it and devoured it with relative ease, if only to find out the answer to the mystery at the heart of the novel–if Ben Day is innocent, who killed three people in 1985? My only advice is this: if you read Dark Places (which, honestly, you should), don’t do it while eating… or you risk ending up like this guy.