Trigger warning for self-harm.
Camille Preaker, the protagonist of Gillian Flynn’s torturous novel Sharp Objects, is one of the most broken people I’ve encountered in fiction. The fact that she knows she’s psychologically and physically damaged isn’t much help when her boss at a second-tier Chicago newspaper badgers her into returning to her home town to report on a murder and a disappearance. In spite of her protests, Camille is dispatched to provide an insider’s look at the small Missouri town with a heart of darkness. The job will come close to finishing her off for good.
As I listened to the audiobook version of Sharp Objects, two things quickly became clear to me. First, Sharp Objects was written when Flynn was still figuring how much psychological terror she can plausible spoon into a story without making it completely implausible; she comes close a couple of times to just shoveling in diagnoses from the DSM-5. Second, Camille hasn’t learned to be wary enough of others to protect herself from getting hurt again. She knows to be on guard around her volatile, passive-aggressive mother, but she doesn’t know to keep her younger half-sister and others at bay. Personally, I heard alarm bells and saw red flags all over the place as Camille gingerly settles back into Wind Gap, Missouri.
Camille is not a top journalist. She describes her writing as uninteresting and she has to push herself to get interviews at first. The murder and disappearance (which is soon revealed to be a second murder) are in capable hands, so it’s not like she has to sweep in like a crusader. Instead, Camille has to edge her way in by telling the family members of the murder victims that, if they tell her about their lost daughters, she will help keep attention on the cases and possibly get them solved sooner. The mystery is interesting, but I got more hooked when Camille started to recover memories from her childhood. These memories and her proximity to her formerly-estranged family begin to connect to the two killings, much to Camille’s horror.
To be honest, the psychology really stole the show for me. I mentioned the DSM-5 and there really are characters, conversations, and events, that seem like fictionalized versions of things in the diagnostic manual of psychology. This book is full of psychological disorders, gaslighting, manipulation, vexed maternal relationships, out-of-control teenagers, unhealthy sexual attitudes, and, of course, Camille’s self-harm. I didn’t have to diagnose the characters so much as think back to the semester I took Psychology 101 and spend most of my time reading the sections on abnormal psychology. This book also strongly reminded me of The Angel of Darkness, by Caleb Carr.
Sharp Objects is one of the darkest mysteries I’ve ever read—mostly because it focuses on how wrong the mother-child relationship can be. Camille’s journey is almost like a journey into hell. The ending that she has to somehow survive is extraordinarily audacious and harrowing. I saw the solution to the mystery before Camille did—because I have a better sense of self-preservation than Camille does—but I didn’t mind. I was in it to see how (or if) the perpetrator would get caught and to see if Camille would be able to find some peace after it was all over. Some readers may roll their eyes or drop the book if they’re not into the sometimes heavy-handed psychological portraits. But readers who are as fascinated with abnormal psychology as I am, they’ll have a great time with Sharp Objects.