Book Review: Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

           In her second novel, Gillian Flynn explores 1980s rural America in the midst of the Satanic cult hysteria. In particular, Dark Places portrays the haunting yet unintended ramifications of immense poverty with a suspenseful and captivating narrative that highlights the class issues, marital abuse, and abandonment that ultimately destroyed one family.

            As the sole survivor of her family’s murder at the hands of her older brother, Libby Day is now a struggling adult who is unable to move on with her life due to the emotional trauma she suffered because of her mother, Patty Day, and sisters’ deaths. As a result of her tragic circumstances, Libby describes herself as unlovable, with a “grudging curve of the lips where a smile” should be:

           I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ. Slit me at my belly and it might slide out, meaty and dark, drop on the floor so you could stomp on it. It’s the Day blood. Something’s wrong with it.

           At first glance, she is characterized as an untrustworthy and selfish young woman who turns to exploiting her family’s death for money by attending a meeting at the “Kill Club,” which consists of a group of overly enthusiastic individuals obsessed with notorious crimes. More specifically, there is a group that believes Libby’s older brother, Ben Day, who was accused of murdering her mother and sisters, is innocent. Though she initially refuses to recall the horrific events of January 3, 1985, Libby is soon driven into revisiting the case in a desperate attempt to earn some more money in order to survive.

            One of the things that stands out the most in Dark Places is the different points of view and flashbacks that Flynn uses to lead the reader through the narrative. Typically, in fiction, authors tend to stick to just one point of view – whether that’s first-person point of view or third person limited point of view – but Dark Places is told through interchanging perspectives. The novel opens with Libby’s first-person account of her life in the present, but as the story progresses, the reader is also introduced to Patty and Ben’s perspectives through third person limited flashbacks, which detail crucial events that eventually lead to the haunting murders of the Day family.

            Through these flashbacks, the reader meets a string of other possible suspects, such as Runner Day – Libby’s deadbeat father, Krissi Cates – the girl who accused Ben of molesting her when she was ten, Diondra Wertzner – Ben’s high school girlfriend, and Trey Tampano – Diondra’s cousin. At the same time, Libby learns of the additional suspects and the events of the past, albeit a little later than the reader. Though the author risks giving the reader more knowledge than the narrator, Flynn maintained a skillful balance, and as such, she effectively amplified the suspense that drove the mystery forward, urging readers to continue turning the pages in a race to see who will uncover the true murderer first – the reader or Libby? 

            The abruptness of these shifting perspectives, as well as the time jumps from past to present should have been jarring, but Flynn makes it work for this particular novel, since she breaks these accounts up into very easy-to-follow chapters. Most importantly, these shifts in perspective and time contribute to the overall haunting portrayal of the Day family’s desperate circumstances. While Libby’s point of view adds to the overall suspense of the story by pushing readers to want to find out the true murderer, both Patty and Ben’s sides of the story portray the desolation and hopelessness that plagued their family as a result of their immense poverty.

             Aside from its less-traditional structure, another storytelling aspect that Flynn executes impressively in Dark Places is characterization, but most specifically, the juxtaposition of Libby and Krissi’s characters. Despite having only heard his voice on the night of the murders, Libby is inevitably steered by law enforcement officials to implicate and testify that she had seen her brother at the scene of the murders, since Ben was the easiest and most obvious suspect, fitting into the community’s preconceived Satanic cult hysteria narrative:

“I know this is hard for you, Libby, but if you say it, say it aloud, you will help your mom and sisters, and you will help yourself start to heal. Don’t bottle it up, Libby, don’t bottle up the truth. You can help us make sure Ben is punished for what he did to your family.”

           On that same note, Krissi was steered by psychologists to accuse Ben of sexual abuse, despite that not being the whole truth:

              “You seem like a smart, brave girl. I’m relying on you to tell me what happened. Oh, nothing happened? Gosh, I thought you were braver than that. I was really hoping you’d be brave enough to help me out on this.”

           The authorities’ preconceived notions about Ben’s character played a huge role into his wrongful accusation on both accounts, and Flynn uses both Libby and Krissi’s similarities and differences to highlight a haunting phenomenon that brings to light the shortcomings of the justice system, particularly in cases in which biases have already been formed prior to any evidence or testimonies.

           One of the drawbacks in Dark Places comes from Flynn’s excess details of carnage, or more specifically, animal sacrifice. These events add to the Satanic cult hysteria culture that surrounded rural American in the 1980s and highlighted its significance in the town’s and Ben’s backstory. However, rather than focusing too much on the “devil worship,” the story could have benefited from more internalization from Libby’s perspective, so that the readers can witness her growth throughout the events of the narrative. Flynn’s structure allowed for detailed flashbacks that painted a very vivid image of the murders, but at the same time, Libby’s arc, including the moment in which her character grows or changes, is severely undermined because the readers are distracted by the gruesome details of Ben’s past.

            Despite these slight shortcomings, Flynn still does a marvelous job in creating a believable world that is driven by suspense. Although all of the characters have many faults, Flynn’s storytelling makes the reader care about the fates of everyone, which helped to drive the story forward. In addition, through Dark Places, Flynn explores the many flaws of the justice system, particularly in an impoverished community driven by moral panic surrounding Satan worship. The culmination of all of these factors resulted in a chilling yet enjoyable story.

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