Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

Last week I finished reading Dark Places (2009), by Gillian Flynn.  Like many other readers I anxiously devoured her best seller Gone Girl last summer and promptly got copies of her two earlier novels. I read Sharp Objects right away, but didn't get around to Dark Places until now. I’m glad I picked it up. This is one disturbing, riveting, thrilling, book. Although I didn't guess the exact solution of the mystery, I was right about one big part of it, but I don't think this is a who-done-it kind of mystery. This is more a book about creating an atmosphere—an atmosphere of sheer menace. And boy, does it succeed.

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places alternates between various narratives. It begins with Libby Day, the lone survivor of a the murder of her family, 25 years later. As a 7 year old she escaped and testified to seeing her 15 year old brother kill her mother and sisters. After coasting for 25 years on the money donated to her by well-wishers, Libby needs money and agrees to appear at Kill Club, a convention for true crime obsessives and conspiracy theorists. I have to admit, as a person who's read multiple books on the Leo Frank case and the sinking of the Titanic, I was hooked from here on in. 

To bilk more money out of Kill Club--who believe her brother is innocent--Libby agrees to get in touch with the other possible suspects to discover the real killer. This reminded me of a device Agatha Christie used in both Five Little Pigs and Sleeping Murder, and it's a great premise. But Flynn adds another twist--she alternates the contemporary narrative of Libby with third person narratives from the point of view of her brother Ben and of her mother Patty, from the days leading up to the murder. This technique builds the suspense brilliantly, as Libby gets closer to uncovering the truth, the readers are learning parts of the backstory she'll never know. So the book ends up being a cross between the Agatha Christie murder in retrospect and the intercutting between past and present of A. S. Byatt's Possession and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Being a big fan of all these things, needless to say, I loved it. 

Something else about this book really got to me personally. Whenever Libby is thinking about the night of the murders she drops the phrase "darkplace" to indicate a retreat to the deep dark depths of the horror of her memory, from which the novel takes it's name. All of us, even those of us who haven't experienced anything like the horrors the heroine of this novel lived through, have our own dark places. Personally, I've always been upset by violence, and I feel less bothered by that now. That's just my dark place.

The Warden, by Anthony Trollope

Yesterday I listened to an old favorite of mine, The Warden (1855), the first in Anthony Trollope's series of six novels set in the fictional county of Barsetshire. I've only read 19 out of his 47 novels, but I have a little goal of getting to all of them someday.

The Warden is set in the fictional cathedral city of Barchester (inspired by Salisbury), and concerns various dignitaries of the church, such as kindly old Bishop Grantly, his domineering, active and worldly son, Archdeacon Grantly, and our title character, Mr. Septimus Harding, who at the beginning of the novel holds the wardenship of Hiram's Hospital--basically a charity nursing home for retired laborers run by the church.  A young friend of Mr. Harding's (who's also in love with his daughter) raises a public question of whether the funds that support the charity and pay Mr. Harding's salary are being disposed of in accordance with the original terms of the bequest. Mr. Harding isn't at fault at all but the mere fact of the fairness of his position being called into question force the sensitive man to resign his profitable living.

I suspect that Trollope wrote this novel in response to severe church reforms of the day, that sought to do good but ended up leaving people worse off than they were before.  It's possible the novel originally had some relevance to the world it came out of, but it still resonates today. Being raised without religion myself, I don't have much interest in religion and I'd never have imagined that I'd be so fascinating by these long novels about clergymen and their families, but they don't actually concern religion itself. The atmosphere of the cathedral close isn't too far off from the contemporary world of academe, for example. So, I encourage everyone to pick up these novels. Their true depictions of the petty internal politics that can often bog down even the most well-intentioned institutions will continue to be relevant to new readers as they have been for more than 150 years.

The Warden is by far the shortest entry in the Barsetshire series and it's easy to dismiss it as little more than setting up the masterpiece that followed it. And while it's true that Mr. Harding and his daughters Eleanor, and Susan, and his son-in-law the Archdeacon are also prominently featured in that delightful book, The Warden is a great novel in its own right, and one of great variety. After the reformer John Bold promises Eleanor Harding to drop the suit against her father, and becomes engaged to her, he has to go and surrender to the Archdeacon. Trollope has presented these characters with such complexity that even though Bold is a good enough guy to carry off our heroine Eleanor, we're still angry enough at him over the pain he's caused Mr. Harding, that gentlest, sweetest of men, that we can enjoy seeing him get his comeuppance.  When he arrives at the Archdeacon's house, he's greeted by the Archdeacon's three sons. The three boys completely get the better of him with deadpan sarcasm in one of Trollope's funniest scenes.

But then take the scene where the kind, generous Mr. Harding bids goodbye to the 12 old men who've been under his care as Warden. Most of the men have participated in the attack on Mr. Harding out of futile greed and ignorance, but come to regret their action deeply. He is such a good, sweet man, with only the fault of not having the courage to fight for his own interest--if that is a fault at all. And by the time Mr. Harding is slammed in the popular press, the reader feels the sting of that attack as if Harding their our own father.  The Archdeacon, too, is flawed but lovable. I love Trollope characters as I love my own friends, aware of their faults as well as the qualities that overshadow them.

I'll leave off with one of my favorite quotations from The Warden:

"They say that faint heart never won fair lady; and it is amazing to me how fair ladies are won, so faint are often men's hearts."