Friday, 18 August 2017

BOOKCLUB: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

This month on the Triskele Book Club, we're discussing Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

About the book:

Libby Day was just seven years old when her older brother massacred her family while she hid. Her evidence helped put him away. Ever since then she has been drifting, surviving for over 20 years on the proceeds of the 'Libby Day fund'. But now the money is running out and Libby is desperate. When she is offered $500 to do a guest appearance, she feels she has to accept. But this is no ordinary gathering. The Kill Club is a group of true-crime obsessives who share information on notorious murders, and they think her brother Ben is innocent.

Ben was a social misfit, ground down by the small-town farming community in which he lived. But he did have a girlfriend - a brooding heavy metal fan called Diondra. Through her, Ben became involved with drugs and the dark arts. When the town suddenly turned against him, his thoughts turned black. But was he capable of murder? Libby must delve into her family's past to uncover the truth - no matter how painful...

As Libby’s search takes her from shabby Missouri strip clubs to abandoned Oklahoma tourist towns, the narrative flashes back to January 2, 1985. The events of that day are relayed through the eyes of Libby’s doomed family members—including Ben, a loner whose rage over his shiftless father and their failing farm have driven him into a disturbing friendship with the new girl in town. Piece by piece, the unimaginable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself right back where she started—on the run from a killer.

Discussion (Liza Perrat, Gillian Hamer, JJ Marsh):

Why do you think the author, Gillian Flynn, set Dark Places on a farm?

(LP): the particular farm on which this story is set is rundown, bleak and isolated, just like many of the characters. This setting reflects the general dark, macabre ambience that runs through the whole story.

(GEH): The farm the author describes here isn't one of bouncing lambs and clucking hens, it's a bleak, rundown place that the family are struggling to keep afloat. I think the sense of loss and despair in the story are echoed in the settings, a very clever move by the author as it really adds to the atmosphere.

(JJ): For me, it symbolises the failure of the old ways. A farm means exposure to the harsh truth of climate change, unpredictable weather, unsustainable debt and the inability to rely on free labour, such as your kids. Additionally, it's remote and distanced from the town and its people.

The novel’s protagonist, Libby Day is a self-loathing liar, manipulator, kleptomaniac, and opportunist. Do you think the author intended to make her unlikeable? And were you able to empathize with her on any level?

(LP): Libby’s personality was shaped by the family she was born into, then the terrible tragedy that befell her at such an early age. For that alone, the reader can empathise with her. And yes, I do think the author intended to portray Libby as unlikeable. We see that right from the opening line: 'I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.' But I believe that is one of the author’s great talents; that she is able to render such an unpleasant character likeable and someone you come to root for as the story progresses.

(GEH): I didn't really grow to like the character, but I did feel empathy for her situation. To have lost her mother and sisters in such a brutal way, and to have been witness to the event, would scar even the strongest person. I also appreciated the fact that Libby recognised her own flaws and made no secret of them. She wanted to always be a better person but lived under no illusion it would actually ever happen. I think it's a brave call from the author to give the lead of the novel to this character but in my opinion it worked well.

(JJ): She reminds me of a turtle. There's a carapace born of hurt, formed by kindly sympathy around an immature, vulnerable interior. "I was raised feral". There's also laziness, pessimism, greed and judgement. She gives herself a free pass "because of what happened" but makes no effort to grow, come to terms, or make amends to those who wanted to help. She is incredibly annoying at times, which is what makes her an intriguing character. I didn't like her but she certainly interested me.

Why has Libby ignored Jim Jeffreys’ advice to earn an income for so many years? Why do you think she did that?

(LP): I think Libby was convinced society and the monetary gifts from strangers were her dues, as payment for her ordeal and the hard life she made for herself, because of the tragedy. As if society had to pay for her bad luck. She felt she didn’t owe society a thing, such as working to earn a living, or being a decent adult, but that it was owed to her. I don’t think Libby cares much about money anyway, or material possessions, and living basically hand-to-mouth suits her depressive, self-loathing personality.

(GEH): I think primarily down to a mix of self-pity and laziness. Libby feels the world owes her because of the tragedy of her childhood, and when the world stopped paying it turned her to bitterness.

(JJ): I agree with both your assessments. She does feel owed and she is lazy. This whole persona seems to have developed out of a sense of nihilism. She always has her "I could kill myself" card up her sleeve. This short-term approach to life means she cannot plan, will not contemplate a future and regards relationships as transactions. Or so she tells herself. However, someone with such a keen eye for the subtleties of human nature is nowhere near as disengaged as she'd like to think.

So why then do you think Libby takes up Lyle’s offer from the Kill Club?

(LP): Libby is skint. The kindness of strangers has run out and she’s desperate for cash, which is the major reason that propels her towards the Kill Club. After all, she’s lived off the victim card for so long, and this isn’t really any different. Also, perhaps now that many years have lapsed since her family was massacred, she can begin to look at the crime, and the supposed perpetrator, through different eyes.

(GEH): Desperation. She realises the money will soon be at an end and it's the easiest way of getting money fast. I don't think her intentions were any deeper than that, she certainly never thought of it as a way of clearing Ben's name in the beginning.

(JJ): Yes, obviously the money is a draw but so is the attention. Her name has dropped from the limelight and she resents all the billboards advertising another girl's disappearance. She gets into this for venal reasons, but the experience has a deeper effect. I also see a curiosity in her about why people care. Libby doesn't care passionately about anything so to see a group meeting of such urgency and obsession makes her take off her shades and blink.

What do you think begins to stir Libby’s mind about the innocence, or guilt, of her brother, Ben, for the crimes?

(LP): The Kill Club is a group of crime enthusiasts who meet to discuss famous cases, such as Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper … and Libby’s Kansas Farmhouse murder. And when Libby realizes many of its members are convinced Ben is not guilty, she starts to question what she saw exactly, or did not see, the night of the massacre. The author expertly evokes the fallibility of memory here, and the lies a child might tell herself to get through such a devastating trauma.

(GEH): Yes, I think meeting so many people who were so certain of her brother's innocence lit a spark of guilt somewhere deep inside Libby's psyche. How did she know what she saw as real back then really was the truth? When she couldn't answer that question to her satisfaction, she had no option but to follow her journey to the truth.

(JJ): As mentioned above, Libby avoids the 'dark places'. These include the truth of that night, happy memories of her family, any honest analysis of her own behaviour, the potential enormity of a miscarriage of justice. She sticks her fingers in her ears and sings because she lacks the emotional tools with which to break any of it down. She's disaffected until she encounters the affected. Taking a peek at the possibilities, at her own pace, she starts to examine shadows, doubts and her own instinct. The latter is vital because she has learned not to trust herself.

Did you think Ben was guilty?

(LP): Well no. That seemed to be the whole point of the story, putting doubt in the reader’s mind. However, I did ask myself, along the way, if the author might be creating a red herring.

(GEH): Not really. It could have been a dramatic twist that the bad guy really was the one doing life in jail, but it seemed unlikely. I thought the ending and the big reveal were my personal highlights of the novel.

(JJ): Because we spend a lot of time in Ben's head, and understand his disenfranchised rage and teenage impotence/potency, I didn't. Had it been a single act of violence, a crime of passion by a pent-up kid with a shotgun, maybe. But strangulation, shooting and axe murdering three of his family? He simply wasn't that kind of kid.

What did you make of Diondra and her relationships?

(LP): Diondra loves to be in control and I think she’s attracted to Ben as she can have complete control over him. She can manipulate him to do whatever takes her fancy, and send him on a guilt trip over her pregnancy. And then there is the “friend”, Trey, with whom Diondra seems to relate on a sadistic, warped kind of level. Someone she feels comfortable being evil with.

(GEH): Now that's one character I didn't connect with on any level! She is very complex, spoilt, needy and dangerous too. The unplanned pregnancy set her on another level, and she saw the best way yet to control and manipulate people. I did find her part in the modern day story quite shocking too.

(JJ): I'm with Gilly on this - I loathed her and her privileged arrogance. A classic manipulator. That said, I think the portrayal of Ben's experiences with her and his reaction to her friends is pitch perfect. I felt every single one of Trey's put-downs personally. Sly, devious and people-users. Toxic.

Libby’s mother, Patty Day constantly worries whether she is a good mother. What did you think?

(LP): Poor Patty is a victim of her time, place and situation in society. She tries her best, but constantly fails due to situations beyond her control, such as finances and an abusive husband who keeps turning up to claim money she hasn’t got. However, at the end, the reader realizes just to what extent a mother such as Patty would go, in an effort to try and provide for, and protect, her children. I really felt sorry for Patty, trapped in this terrible situation.

(GEH): I sympathised with the position Patty found herself in and couldn't fault her for doing her best under the circumstances, but did question her life choices and decisions. Obviously, if you look at her final decision it was solely based on improving the lives of her children, so yes, a good mother I think.

(JJ): Certainly a victim of circumstances, strong for her kids but weak with her husband. Her sister has more of a toughness which the children respect. Patty's exhaustion is total. Little moments show how much she loves her children yet she cannot provide for them alone. She reminded me of that classic Migrant Mother photo by Dorothea Lange. At the end of her strength still trying to hold everyone up.

Did you like the story’s split narrative? Did you find one point of view more appealing than the others?

(LP): I enjoyed reading all the different points of view equally, as each cast a different light on the events.

(GEH): Yes, it worked for me. It made it far more layered to see the story and the history of the events played out between the major characters involved. It didn't confuse me at all, although I applaud the author for mastering the complicated narrative.

(JJ): The fact that each voice has such a distinctive tone and pace made it a definite success. Libby's inertia, long drives, introspective thought contrast with Ben's violent, jerky, scattershot narration whereas Patty is running out of ideas, so her recounting of the day feels like one punch landing after another. I think it's beautifully balanced. 

If you've read this book, please feel free to join our discussion and make a comment.

No comments:

Post a Comment