Fiction — print. Broadway, 2006. 254 pgs. Purchased.
A journalist at a second-rate paper outside of Chicago, Camille Preaker’s editor sends her back to her hometown in southern Missouri to cover the disappearance of a second little girl from Wind Gap named Natalie. Nine months ago, a little girl named Ann was abducted, murdered, and found in a creek with all her teeth pulled out. The local sheriff thinks it was someone from outside the community; the detective on loan from Kansas City won’t rule out that the two little girls knew their killer.
Yet Camille is a writer in another sense; she utilizes her skin like parchment and has spent much of her life carving words into her body with a knife. Eight years after leaving her hometown, Camille has finally stopped cutting herself, but returning to Wind Gap and dealing with her distant mother, who lavishes attention on Camille’s thirteen-year-old half sister just as she did on their deceased middle sister, leaves Camille with an ever-mounting desire to start writing hurtful words into her skin again.
And, even as Camille’s editor grows increasingly concerned about her psychological well-being and her step-father starts suggesting it may be time for her leave, Camille is unable to walk away from the case. She recognizes a kindred spirit of sorts in Ann and Natalie — two tomboys with histories of violence — and Camille is increasingly concerned about her overly-sexualized, younger sister, Amma. The thirteen-year-old is the biggest bully in town, but Camille’s mother babies her and refuses to curtail or, even recognize, Amma’s behavior.
There is also the added difficulty of trying to interview people who, rightfully, have no interest in seeing their tragedy turned into a story for national amusement, which I appreciated as someone who once worked as a journalist on the crime beat. She goes to much further lengths than I would have ever gone, but I recognized the frustration in trying to interview the unwitting and the unwilling. And I appreciated how Flynn kept it unclear if Camille is one step ahead or a mile behind the detective assigned to the case, whom she is both sleeping with and trying to get quoted on the record.
This novel — Flynn’s first — is far darker and sinister than her monstrously popular Gone Girl with Camille trying to balance the psychological trauma of her past with the mental challenge of dealing with her mother, sister, and reacquainting herself with residents of the town in the present. The emotional pain women inflict upon each other either through words or through snubs are explored throughout this book. Camille carves the words her mother says to her in her skin; Amma snubs one of the girls in her posse to keep them in line. And it makes for a complex psychological struggle that is both hard to imagine and easy to see in my own past as a high school student.
This mental balance is what keeps the pages turning as the stunningly impactful twist found in Gone Girl is nowhere to be found in this story. Like nearly all crime writers, Flynn goes for a big twist at the end and, like many first time novelists, ends up giving it away long before the reader gets there. The “whodunit” of the crime may have been easily solved, but the mental anguish Camille feels at every turn unravels slowly. And I think one has to be deeply interested in the unhealthy aspects of the human psyche in order for this novel to work for them. Even I, for all my interest in “deviant behavior”, was wondering how Flynn could come up with such a tale.