Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn

Anyone who has previously read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl will be familiar with her particular style of dark crime fiction full of damaged, morally ambiguous characters and fractured, toxic relationships. Like Gone Girl, Sharp Objects is a novel in which almost every character ought to be locked up, undergoing extensive therapy or both, and is as much about the characters and the psychological havoc they wreak upon each other as it is about the central mystery.

Camille Preaker is a reporter working for a local newspaper in Chicago when her boss, Frank Curry, sends her back to her home town of Wind Gap, Missouri to write an investigative human interest piece on the unsolved murders of two children. Camille agrees only with considerable reluctance: she hasn't returned to Wind Gap for many years and has had very little contact with her family. Camille is 30 but has a 13-year-old half-sister, Amma, who she barely knows and wouldn't recognise on the street. There's obvious hostility between Camille and her mother Adora, a wealthy narcissist and Wind Gap's resident queen bee, and also hanging over the family is the shadow of Camille's other younger sister, Marian, who died when she and Camille were children and was Adora's favoured daughter of the two.

We soon discover that Camille has a history of serious self-harm, for which she has previously been hospitalised with the support of the avuncular Curry and his wife. Camille has a lot of history with Wind Gap, seemingly none of it good, and it feels as if her return to her small town home and dysfunctional family could easily send her over the edge. 

In addition to the family drama, there's also the crime plot. Who is killing wilful young girls in Wind Gap, and why? Like most small towns, Wind Gap is a hive of gossip and full of secrets and grudges, and it's hard to tell what might be a genuine lead and what might be malicious rumour. 

Sharp Objects reads to me like a great piece of suffocatingly creepy Southern Gothic. The small town atmosphere, where everyone knows everyone else and everyone has secrets to keep and grudges to harbour, is powerfully oppressive. Things have barely changed since Camille left Wind Gap, and there are unpleasant memories and unwelcome acquaintances at every turn. There's a sense of heightened reality that's both unsettling and camp - there's more than a touch of Mommy Dearest-era Joan Crawford about glamorous,  insincere Adora, for example. In Adora's presence, 13-year-old Amma is all pigtails and dolls' houses, but when she's out with her friends she's a promiscuous, substance-abusing wild child.

This is a book about largely terrible people doing largely terrible things and there's no getting away from the darkness of this story and its characters. To paraphrase TV announcers, I think there are certainly 'scenes some readers may find distressing' and not all of them actually pertain to the crimes committed. and I can't pretend for a moment that the plot is even remotely plausible, but I don't think it's really meant to be - it has that same sense of shocking audacity that Gone Girl has, which I love. Sharp Objects is an intelligently written book and there are times when it's deeply sad, but the grotesque undertones and constant conflict between self-serving characters bring a touch of camp Grand Guignol to it that sets it pleasingly apart.