My friend Don warned me before reading Dark Places that I’d have to prepare myself and come armed with rainbows and kittens and find something immediately afterwards to raise my spirits—or what remained of my spirits as this book obliterated them, which is not to say I didn’t like the book because I really did enjoy it. I’d rather not think what that says about me.
On one hand, I enjoyed the book immensely for its writing, its brittle settings, and the sharp, brooding characters, but there are parts, such as the characters and story structure that disagree with me and weakens the climax and resolution of the book, making my experience reading this disjointed and less satisfying.
“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.”
What a way to introduce a book.
This impressive first line encases the book’s themes, plot, writing style, and sets the tone. You’re not gradually introduced to Dark Places; you’re already in it.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn tells the not-so-happy tale of Libby Day after her family’s demise. This is putting it lightly, however. On the night of January 2 in 1985, Libby Day’s brother Ben Day slaughtered their mother and their two sisters. Ben Day is convicted based on DNA evidence, Libby’s testimony, and spliced stories about Ben Day’s involvement with satanic worship and occult rituals. Case closed. Libby Day is the hero and all’s well that ends well, except our Libby has to grow up with her family still dead and her brother still locked in prison. She’s jobless and living off people’s charities and donations. A guy named Lyle shows up and invites her to a club called the Kill Club, fanatics who gather to discuss all things murder oriented. Reluctant but desperate, Libby attends one of these meetings, and everyone there reopens the Day case. None of the members believe Ben actually killed the Day family. Libby, despite how furious she is at first, starts to question the same thing herself. She was a kid then. She wasn’t sure that what she was told was what actually happened. Did her brother really kill the Day family? Why was she the only survivor? What actually happened the night of January 2, 1985?
Although Dark Places is a murder mystery suspense novel that will lock you into its pages until you figure out the truth, it’s not reliant on its plot entirely. The plot structure is what we’d typically expect for a murder mystery. We have the protagonist questioning other characters to piece together missing chunks of time in order to solve the mystery. The witness interrogation, however, is less about unveiling the true murderer and is more about Libby Day relearning who Ben Day is. Until now, she’s only been able to see him as two things: her loving brother and a sick psychotic killer. Even as the story is mostly told from Libby’s perspective, the plot is not tied to her. In many ways, Libby Day is not even the focus of this this story. She’s more of Nick Carraway character observing the bigger picture. Everyone has stories going on simultaneously that are not directly related to Libby herself. It better reflects reality and takes readers away from a plighting egocentric universe.
Flawed and broken, the characters are fascinating to read. While it may be difficult to relate to any of these characters due to their traumatic upbringing or lack thereof, you’ll find yourself liking them and, at the same time, having a hard time accepting them. We can know them, but it’s hard to understand them. They’re morally complicated characters. All of them.
In the case of Libby Day, Libby lives only to survive. She initially starts to investigate her family’s murder to turn a profit but later on shows some interest in learning as to what actually happened that night. This becomes apparent after she speaks with her brother in prison. The characters’ morality is contingent on their motivation. In the heap of all things twisted in the book, it’s interesting to find that what remains good, the virtuous meaning of the term, is preserved within the characters’ intentions. Ben Day’s reasons are considerably selfless even chivalrous including Patty Day’s reasons. The characters undergo stages of development that are simply sublime and interesting to read. As you can tell, I cannot get enough of studying them.
The language in the book and style invite you to read more. It captures the depth of poignant and raw feelings that mercilessly plunge you into a cold place with no air and little chance for hope. It’s important to note that the style of writing works in favor of the three narrators: present day Libby Day, 1985 Ben Day, and 1985 Patty Day, the mom. Usually I would expect the voices of the narrators to shift, but in general, the narrators all sound like the same person. To some readers, this may be problematic. But the writing is so chilling and cutting that I’d hate to go to something different. It also helps that each of the characters are of a similar mind set. As they transition, they go through the same inflection of feelings despite being in drastically different situations. If nothing else, this book’s writing needs to be savored.
The novel’s conclusion left a somewhat bitter taste in my mouth, however. Without spoiling it, the ending compromises the novel’s continuity and the structure. Some could argue that this is a semblance of real life interjecting into literature. For the most part, I agree with incorporating fragments of reality into literature to keep the piece grounded and familiar. But a novel is a work of art and part of what makes a novel successful is the style in which it ends, and this one, sticks out too much for me to accept. This is not to say you shouldn’t read this novel, but do expect something abrupt to happen and then have everything end nicely.
Rating: 3.75 out of 5