Until Gone Girl put her well and truly on the map last year, I don’t think it would be unfair to say that Flynn had been very much under the radar. I am yet to read her breakthrough novel, though I can’t wait to do so, as I know many people who have read it and none of them have a bad word to say about it. Having just finished her debut novel from 2006, my excitement is even more piqued. This was a compulsive page turner that gripped from the get go.
Camille Preaker escaped her oppressively small home town of Wind Gap and is now living in Chicago, working as a mid ranking reporter in a low ranking newspaper. When two ten year old girls are murdered in Wind Gap, her editor sends her back to cover the story. So far, so simple, so ordinary, right? Wrong.
Camille’s family history is…difficult. Her mother, the ironically named Adora, is impressively wealthy, but in an act of rebellion against her own upbringing, had a one night stand with a stranger she never saw again, which resulted in Camille. Soon after, Adora got respectable, got married and had two more children. Marian, the middle child is a sickly little thing and dies before her 10th birthday. Camille is unable to deal with her family life and goes spectacularly off the rails.
So, it’s obvious to everyone except the editor of the two bit newspaper, that sending Camille back to her family home to cover a murder investigation is a Very Bad Idea. And it is. Som leads are followed, friends and family of the girls are interviewed, policemen slept with. Camille is a terrible journalist. But there are reasons for her erratic behaviour. When the extent of just how damaged our narrator really is is revealed, it is quite shocking (and makes sense of the awful jacket copy “WICKED above her hipbone, GIRL across her heart”). If you plan on reading this book, skip ahead to the next paragraph and save yourself. Camille is a cutter, but not just any ordinary cutter. She carved words in to every inch of reachable flesh, until she is a walking lexicon, with only a circle of skin in the middle of her back untainted.
This reveal comes somewhere near the halfway point and it shifts focus away from the murders (the body count stays at two for a very long time) and becomes more intent on rattling the many skeletons in the Preaker family closet. It’s all very sickly fascinating. Camille’s surviving sister, Amma, is a 13 year old Mean Girl who still throws toddler tantrums. She is the ringleader of a quartet of girls we all knew and hated in school. Camille tries to reach out to the half sister she hasn’t seen since she was 5 years old. It’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t really go well, is it?
This is a major strength of the book. The world Amma and Adora live in, that Camille is sucked back into, is vividly drawn, brilliantly detailed, utterly three dimensional. All the characters are flawed but this just makes them all the more believable. The biggest strength of this book for me though? About two thirds of the way through, I predicted who the killer was. And so when my prediction came to pass, I was unsurprised, though tellingly, not disappointed. The story had been so brilliantly told, I didn’t care. It’s not where you go, it’s how you get there, right? And then the final chapter performs such a spectacular and nasty rug pull that I actually gasped. For a book to make me do that, it’s high praise indeed. Trust me. Now go read it.