Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
by Riley Grace Borden
In recent months, after having caught a bit of outside light, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel, Sharp Objects, casts its shadows across every person who slips into its mesmerizing, 300-odd page world. After the emergence of Flynn’s second book, Dark Places, and her third novel, the unavoidable international hit and best seller-turned movie, Gone Girl, Sharp Objects has mistakenly not been recognized up until now for its relevance in modern political discussion and its connection to female-focused media.
In the past month, however, Sharp Objects has reemerged as an HBO limited series directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. The show rides on a wave of recent literary adaptations for television featuring female protagonists: characters created by female authors who bulldoze the rich, well-supplied history of stereotypical, binary women, both on screen and in literature. Female characters whose final goal of achieving happiness is not found with a Prince Charming-ending, whose personalities may not be necessarily deemed “virtuous” or “likeable,” and whose stories and challenging circumstances may not conclude with solutions or any so-called “comfortable” endings. Characters who might otherwise be villains, or at the very least humans who threaten the standard of womanly ideals, however misplaced this is, with women like the independent and complicated Cheryl Strayed of Wild, or the manipulative and angry Amy of Gone Girl, and yes, the Sharp Objects TV series’s and book’s messy leading lady, Camille Preaker.
Before watching the series, which follows the plot carefully through a script guided by Flynn herself, several nights should be reserved for the pages of Sharp Objects. It is a book ahead of the current wave of real women in entertainment media pushed by producers like Reese Witherspoon and even if you think you’ve found and picked at each of your scars, Camille Preaker has already uncovered at least a new one inside your mind.
Camille does not qualify as a good person in the common “person-of-integrity” way that bounces off the walls in school and gets driven into everyone’s head before they turn eighteen. She may not be a good person in the way that threads itself into concepts of likeability or the rules society doesn’t admit to making for women to be deemed lovable.
She is beautiful, but faces a similar complex to any woman who finds herself unable to see her body with objectivity, respect, or appreciation, thinking privately of “everything ugly swarming beneath [her] clothes every time people say [I was] pretty” (Flynn 156). Camille uses alcohol as a way to drone out her dark, loveless childhood, and is threatened by her recent release from a psych ward for cutting. She’s thirty-something and single, but she doesn’t have a “single ladies” anthem to emphasize it. She has a decent job as a reporter and hasn’t been home in years. She has alcohol with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and indulges in high doses of drugs with her thirteen year-old sister at teenage parties. She has physically intimate relationships with men without emotional attachment, but does not flaunt her so-called strength in doing so. Camille cannot be described without contradiction. She cannot be liked or loved without the ambivalence and complexity people often feel about loving their own family. And you will love her for her stalwart kindness, resent her for faultiness, and in experiencing her pain so closely, as though you yourself are inside her scarred body, will want to hug her throughout the entire novel. She is broken and crushed, but despite extraordinary and evil circumstance—two murdered girls, one of whom a boy swears was stolen by a ghost, an ineffective police force, and her own tendency and predisposition to become intertwined with harmful, toxic people—remains un-pitiable and indestructible.
Flynn weaves a mystery through Sharp Objects—Camille’s venture to uncover the story of a killer in her hometown at all hours of the day and night—that is difficult, required, and addictive. The pages turn and turn, sometimes out of desperation for Camille to get out of town, sometimes out of thirst to see if Camille will learn of or find the killer, sometimes to watch her have sex with that man or let her sister make that unspeakable decision, but mostly, out of pure hunger for the raw and disgusting things. It’s the things we don’t speak about. It’s heaty, vulnerable, and awkward.
There are other characters, memorable, sickening, and distinct—Camille’s distant mother, her intense and precocious sister who meticulously fiddles with a dollhouse when she’s not busy attracting older men at swimming pools or running a herd of manipulative girls, as well as a mystery that holds the plot. Throughout the novel, however, it’s ultimately the silent observations and memories that guide Camille through her own town and push the novel forward with tremendous urgency, from her search through the woods for one of the child victims, to her descriptions of the smell of sex, to her flummoxed internal response to compliments.
Camille sees, feels, and remembers the world, especially her town, Wind Gap, unexpectedly. Her contemplations of the kids she grew up around are not coated in the usual whimsy and softness of young nostalgia. Instead, her descriptions are unappealing and thought provoking: “Those kids, cocky and pissed and smelling of sweat, aggressively oblivious of our existence always compelled me (...) The boys I knew, who began young, were blood hunters. They sought that fatal jerk of a shot-spun animal, fleeing silky as water one second, then cracked to one side of their bullet” (14). To Camille, a silent survivor of teenage assault, sex smells delicious after a cold childhood of bleach, and she describes it with unrestrained relish, as “that sweet muddy smell purely animal like the deepest corner of a bear’s cave.” She draws the reader into an empathy with the unspoken dichotomy between her sexual-obsession, and the relatable awkwardness that accompanies her interactions. She walks the reader through her mind as she struggles to respond naturally to a compliment from a man that feels too rich or disingenuous next to her own self-perception, such as “(…)I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.” Her laughably familiar reply: “I think you’re very handsome too” (143). It’s the pauses of obligation, observation, and a shaken, self-supported womanhood dripping out of Camille that pushes Flynn’s unhinged plot along with violence and necessity.
“Sometimes,” Camille wonders to herself, stilling the forest-fire speed of the plot for a moment of speculation, “I think illness sits inside every woman, waiting for the right moment to bloom. I have known so many sick women all my life. Women with chronic pain, with ever-gestating diseases. Women with conditions. Men, sure, they have bone snaps, they have backaches, they have a surgery or two, yank out a tonsil, insert a shiny plastic hip. Women get consumed.”
This is the type of wordsmithing that dances away from preaching, from dictatorial narration, and leans towards the questions that cannot be answered, humor that feels like it shouldn’t reside next to such honesty. It’s the type of truth-writing that feels sticky and stinky and uncomfortably close to real experience. It makes you worry about the things that have been done to Camille, wonder how she lives on, and then turn to worry and wonder for yourself.
Sharp Objects explores the full range of the human capacity to forgive and to cause damage, both to those who you are supposed to love, and to whose who are supposed to love you. It brings girls and the way they “should” and “do” behave into question long before the TV shows started fighting back against one-dimensional females. Should girls bite back when they are mistreated? How does a family handle it if the girl is the brightest child with the biggest personality? How cruel can a little girl be? Is she less cruel if she is easy to look at or if she plays with a doll house? Is Camille a good person? How can a mother find inflicting more natural than loving? How can sisters not want to love? How can a woman be beautiful, desired, employed, and incomplete? What if there is no, and never has been such a thing as a “good” woman or little girl? And if there is one, should there really be one?
By sharing the world with Camille and by learning to see it through the eyes of an imperfect human, just like us, is the most natural and the most compelling exercise in true-to-life empathy. From the jarring first line, “my sweater was new, stinging red and ugly,” to the last, “I’m leaning towards kindness,” and all the pages in between of unasked and unanswered questions, of unfettered thoughts and desires, Sharp Objects presents Camille—her anguish, her broken family, her past and her future—and adds her to the growing list of formidable female protagonists here to stay and to provoke us in their realness.
— Riley Grace Borden is a Book Correspondent from Whidbey Island, Washington. She is currently a freshman at the University of Washington. Read her blog here.