Gone Girl is one of those much-hyped books that hit the headlines big time. OK, OK, I know, I know! I’m way behind the curve here; it did indeed come out in 2012 and I did buy my hardback copy ages ago, but I’ve only just got around to reading it this week. It’s attracted thousands of reviews (with its fair share of negative ones it must be admitted), won prestigious awards, and was dubbed ‘thriller of the year’. In my case I selected it now to serve a dual purpose: to psych myself gradually back into work mode after a couple of weeks of family priorities; and to hopefully counteract a recent run of disappointing reads.
So what did I make of it? Well, I can quite see why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but my agenda as a writer is probably atypical, and I found it gripping.
The book is divided into three parts, each one combining all the ingredients of a psychological thriller with the intense dissection of a marriage, each one taking us deeper and further into the conundrum of a relationship and the dark capabilities of the human mind. It’s ingeniously constructed, smoothly paced, with unreliable narrators providing contradictions and plot twists to keep the reader guessing right to the end. Nothing is as it seems.
It begins well with two very distinctive narrator voices – Nick Dunne (American magazine writer until computers took over the world and the economy went down the plughole) and his wife Amy (writer of personality quizzes and reluctant model for a series of books about Amazing Amy). One paragraph in each voice to give a flavour:
Nick: My morning breath warmed the pillow, and I changed the subject in my mind. Today was not a day for second-guessing or regret, it was a day for doing. Downstairs, I could hear the return of a long-lost sound: Amy making breakfast. Banging wooden cupboards (rump-thump!), rattling containers of tin and glass (ding-ring!), shuffling and sorting a collection of metal pots and iron pans (ruzz-shuzz!). A culinary orchestra tuning up, clattering vigorously toward a finale, a cakepan drum rolling along the floor, hitting the wall with a cymballic crash. Something impressive was being created, probably a crepe, because crepes are special, and today Amy would want to cook something special.
It was our five-year anniversary.
Amy: Tra and la! I am smiling a big adopted-orphan smile as I write this. I am embarrassed at how happy I am, like some Technicolor comic of a teenage girl talking on the phone with my hair in a ponytail, the bubble above my head saying: I met a boy!
But I did. This is a technical, empirical truth. I met a boy, a great, gorgeous dude, a funny, cool-ass guy.
She is the woman that every American girl (allegedly) aspires to be – beautiful, brilliant, inspiring, and very wealthy. He is the guy that all American men (allegedly) admire – handsome, funny, bright and charming. But on 5 July, their seemingly perfect world comes crashing down when Amy Elliott Dunne disappears, leaving behind a scene of overturned furniture and hastily mopped up blood, the iron still switched on, a half-pressed dress still on the board. It’s their fifth wedding anniversary.
They’ve had their problems: redundancy, ill parents, financial reversals, but Nick is appalled and bewildered (allegedly) when evidence mounts against him, clear motives are identified, and he becomes chief suspect in Amy’s supposed murder. Every year on their anniversary Amy has prepared a treasure hunt reflecting their in-jokes and secret knowledge of each other; this year the clues seem weighted in a sinister and damning way. The police, the press, friends, family, neighbours watch mesmerized as the Dunne’s seemingly charmed lives unravel to reveal a very different reality.
Any author skilled enough to hold all those timelines and lies and plot twists together and unpack a story as deviously compelling as this, deserves enormous admiration. I was constantly checking and double checking and worrying about links far less complicated than this in my own books, so it was no surprise to read that Gillian Flynn had pieces of paper and index cards taped all over the walls of her office as she wrote Gone Girl, and by the time she’d finished the room ‘looked like the lair of a serial killer‘ with ‘crazy words and questions fluttering from every surface‘. The end result is so tight and assured and beautifully dovetailed because of this meticulous attention to detail and thorough cross-checking. Top marks there.
I rarely watch films of books I’ve read – they never match with my imagined characters and places, and usually miss out vital components, but in this case I made an exception. Given the complexity of the story, surely no film could do justice to the printed version, all the unreliable elements, all the deceptions. But it can and it does*. Perhaps that’s in no small measure a tribute to the author who herself contributed to the screenplay. Her parents were both community-college professors – her mother teaching reading; her father, film, and according to her website Gillian ‘spent an inordinate amount of her youth nosing through books and watching movies‘. That could explain a lot. Whatever, Gillian Flynn certainly has an amazing talent; she’s indisputably a master of ‘dark and nasty‘!
I am now absorbed in the tactic of unreliable narrator …
*NB. The filmmakers need to take lessons in the properties of blood! The scenes involving copious amounts of it are entirely unconvincing.
Last week we took our youngest grandchildren to London.
As you do, we soaked up the usual history and took lots of photos of the famous sites and spun a few yarns to bring the past alive, but a couple of the attractions on our list turned out to be far too scary for them to even try. Fair enough; no pressure. I was a ridiculously fearful child myself with far too vivid an imagination that got me into a lot of trouble, so I sympathise.
But their reaction made me think about tolerance levels and the power of the imagination. Which led me to the extraordinary talent some writers have for sucking you in to a horrifying or disturbing world. It’s just words on a page, isn’t it? A mere 26 letters strung together in various combinations. Make-believe. But put together in just this way those words can blot out reality, take over your emotions, keep you on the edge of your seat dreading what’s coming but compelled to read on. That’s clever. That’s power.
So in this frame of mind my eye was caught by reviews such as ‘the go-to queen of contemporary brain-twisting crime‘; ‘the twistiest plots known to woman’, ‘everyday tales of warped psychology’. Intriguing. And who is this queen of twists? Sophie Hannah, that’s who. OK. Heard of her, not read any of her work. But I appreciate good plotting; I’m fascinated by psychology; I’ll give her a go. Broaden my horizons.
I chose a recent one: A Game for all the Family – billed as her ‘first standalone psychological thriller‘ on her website.
Justine Merrison has escaped from the rat-race of life in London (I’ve just been there so have an up to date sense of the pace and pressure of the metropolis) to an idyllic home in Devon (my neck of the woods so I know all about the very different pace of life and the picture postcard scenery).
Appropriate choice so far.
Justine plans to spend her days ‘doing Nothing. With a capital N. Not a single thing’, so she cuts off all connection to her old life as a stressed TV executive. But before long her teenage daughter, Ella, becomes withdrawn and miserable. She eventually confides that her ‘best friend in the whole world‘, George, has been expelled from school for stealing her coat, a coat which she gave him as a gift. Incensed by the injustice, Justine puts pressure on the headmistress to reconsider her decision, only to be told that there is not, and never was, a George in their school. So far so good. I’m hooked.
Then Justine sees a creative writing essay Ella has written and she knows at once this is no innocent teenage make-believe. Here is a darkly disturbed mind spinning a macabre tale of a dysfunctional family spiralling out of control. Where has this information come from? And how does it link to the mysterious George for whom she’s pining? Before long, anonymous calls start … then threats … then sinister events. Graves are dug. Justine is caught up in a whirl of frightening happenings, which are wilder than any drama she ever worked on in her former life. Just where do the boundaries of truth lie? And how can she protect her family from the forces gathering against them?
I was sufficiently curious to keep turning the pages, but I have to confess the ending disappointed. Why? Because I was looking for something less obvious given the build up. Because the ‘bad guy’ was always ‘the bad guy’. Because the psychology seemed suspect to me. Because it left me disappointed.
So no more Hannah novels for me then … Ahhh, now there’s the moral of the tale. How unfair of me. She’s an internationally famous, best-selling writer with a string of awards under her belt; she must be doing something right. Even this book has been well reviewed by some critics. And yet I’ve judged her on a first taste. I’d hate it if someone did that to me, so it’s only fair that, at some point, I give her a second chance.
I am resolved.
I love to read books that brilliantly evoke a time and place, where the language as well as the descriptions are perfectly pitched, where you can totally immerse yourself in a different world. You can feel the heat and vast expanses of Africa in this extract, can’t you?
When you drive through the Kalahari, there’s barely a tree or a rise; there’s nothing but a bleached-out view up ahead of you and a stunning silence. The air is so clear that objects miles away seem close and sound travels in a peculiar way, feeling close to you too. The sunburned plains shimmer beneath the blue African sky and you feel you’ll never reach the horizon. Occasionally you come across the rivelled carcass of a buck or the ghost of an elephant. As you sit there at the wheel, you become part of an infinite world, a dream world so beguiling that you’re tempted to fall asleep and never wake up. (Carolyn Slaughter in Before the Knife)
And sense the frustrations and vexations of post-war Britain here:
It’s 1920. A time when becoming ‘properly vexed’ is considered in poor taste, when ordinary people are beaten down by rules and queues, third sons are unexpectedly inheriting vast estates, flesh and hope had been splattered across the fields of Flanders, the women’s ability to have fun had been blown away with their husbands’ limbs and brains. (Adele Parks in Spare Brides)
You can lose yourself in another time.
So, this week I was intrigued to read about a new book published on July 1 to coincide with the centenary of the Great War; a book which could well lead to other re-creations of that terrible time. It’s called Epitaphs of the Great War: The Somme, by military historian Sarah Warne. She cleverly built up to publication day by tweeting out a single example of an epitaph from the war graves each day. They make poignant reading, putting humanity into mass slaughter, the individual into faceless thousands; lest we hide behind the inconceivable numbers and forget that each one was someone’s son, brother, husband, lover, father. Rather like the piles of shoes on display at Auschwitz, or the field of 888,246 ceramic poppies planted at the Tower of London to commemorate the outbreak of WW1, they bring us face to face with the gruesome reality.
And I was fascinated to hear the history of these short tributes. The Imperial War Graves Commission were so set on fairness and fittingness that they did their best to ensure money, rank and privilege did not show on any of the graves; the dead heroes would lie together, equal before God and men. But in the end the Commission gave way to pressure and conceded that bereaved relatives could if they wished append a message of their choice, provided it was no more than 66 letters/spaces.
If you’ve ever visited the war graves in Europe you’ll know the awesome reverence that hangs over them. I find the inscription ‘A Soldier of the Great War: Known unto God’, very moving. It always makes me think of my uncle, who was in all probability blown to smithereens on the Somme, during the week of his 21st birthday, although my grandmother was simply told he was missing, presumed dead.
A tiny fragment of his body could, I presume, lie in one such grave.
His name (Nevard HP) is etched onto the memorial at Thiepval, but there was to be no marked grave, no 66 letter epitaph for him.
His memory lives on in the family’s hearts and history.
For those willing to ‘brave the dark without a candle‘, this slim volume, Before the Knife: Memories of an African Childhood, will move and disturb in equal measure. It’s immensely readable, powerful and totally absorbing.
It’s author is Carolyn Slaughter and she writes with beauty and courage of the devastating childhood experiences that affected her life for decades. The second of three daughters, she was abused – sexually and physically – by her father from the age of six; so traumatised that she blocked out the images and memories. Nevertheless her troubled past manifested itself in wild and self-destructive behaviours. Her mother and older sister knew what was going on but turned a blind eye; their mutual silence destroying them all each in their own way.
Carolyn’s father was a government official who was posted to various colonies in India and Africa, and she captures the country, the landscapes, the smells, the political intrigues, the class distinctions in wonderfully evocative language. I’ll try to give you a flavour.
‘… the great plains and deserts stretched as far as you could see, wild beasts roamed the vast savannahs, tracing and retracing their paths across ancient migration trails, moving to and from water, decay and death. On the grasslands and at the edges of the deserts, the black man lived and reigned as he had for all eternity: tilling his small fields, slaughtering his cattle and goats in times of plenty, starving or dying out when the rains didn’t come, or when marauding tribes from over the hill brought his days to an end. Women pounded the maize, stirring black pots over wood fires that sent up small blue columns of blue smoke that vanished into the clear blue sky. Sweet potatoes and fat speckled pumpkins hugged the brown earth, and under mimosa trees with spikes long as a child’s finger they fed their babies and shooed chickens from underfoot, waiting for their men to come back from the bush. When the sun rose in the morning, little boys shook out their limbs and led goats out to graze, trailing sticks in the sand and wandering silently through the shorn landscape dotted with thorn bushes, interrupted only by a solitary acacia tree with branches laid flat across a sky as endless and blue as the sea.
But then one day, into this eternity we came marching. We sailed across the Atlantic, tall masts and white sails brilliant in the sunlight, and announced that we’d discovered Africa, We took a quick look around and, picking up the four corners of the sleeping continent like a picnic cloth, we shook it up, cut it into pieces and flung it back down in our own image. White faces radiant in the sun, we brought in our columns of mercenaries, or guns and whips; we spread our diseases and plagues, and toppled the landscape and the languid people who’d lived on it since time began. We stayed on for a while, sojourning in Africa the way we had in India, never really intending to stay, dreaming always of England, and those blue remembered hills. But, for all the coming and going of white feet, the snatching of lands and lakes, and all the ivory, gem, gold and trophy collecting, and the building of farms and cities, in the end it was always a short visit: white men coming to make a hurried living along the beautiful acres of the equator that stretch all the way up into the show-peaked crests of mountains put down a few hundred million years ago. We took what we needed and packed up again, and in no time at all, the life of the white man, so transitory and scattered, so greedy and impatient, would be over: one by one, nation by nation, we pulled up and went back over the sea, and once we had gone it was as if we’d never been. We left no memory of ourselves on the still air, no trace of our footsteps on the scorched plains – we were gone – no more than a handful of bleached bones on the lap of a continent that could remember man’s first startled smile.’
The young Carolyn lived alongside racial discrimination, brutality and white domination and tried to make sense of life with precious little guidance. Small wonder that she was bowled over by her first experience of warm ‘maternal’ love from Rena on the farm, and obsessed by sixth-former Virginia who showed her understanding, sympathy and affection.
In her eloquent writing she brings partition and aparthied, tribal superstitions and imperial rule to life. She describes her fractured relationships with her parents with brutal honesty. She also explores the dark places of her own mind with breathtaking clarity; I wanted to reach out and pluck her from that precarious edge and wrap her in safety and warmth. Her volatile temper, her own urge to hurt and kill, her wild and untethered youth, her rebellion, her intoxication with risk – they all make sense in face of the revelation she sketches briefly in the prologue and eventually recounts in the epilogue.
‘…the moment when everything changed only really came the night that my father first raped me. I was six years old. This rape, and the others that were to follow, obliterated in one moment both the innocence of my childhood and the fragile structure of our English family life. We all knew. I showed my mother all the proof she needed, and my older sister was right there in the room with me, in the bed across from mine. But once it had happened, we decided that it had never happened at all. In our privileged and protected world, we chose to bury it, we put it out of sight and memory, never said another word.’
Set against our modern understanding of abuse and its effects, of repressed memories and mental illness, this story is heartrending. No wonder it took 50 years and a wealth of support to write it down. One can only hope that the process has been cathartic and now in her 70s, she has found some peace.
And yet, in spite of the horrors she endured, in the end Carolyn’s story is one of triumph and enormous courage. I recommend this book to anyone who can bear to feel the pain of a lonely and deeply damaged child.
When she faced the prospect of returning to England she wondered how she could survive living amongst people who had no concept of her life in Africa.
‘How could I bring them the magic of the river in Maun, or of the African women walking down to the mealie fields with their babies strapped to their backs? How could I tell them how guinea fowl stepped lightly through splashes of moonlight, or describe how the scorched plains vibrated and hummed when the sun was high? What could they know of the slithery nights when the hyenas bayed at the moon and the lion gave out its solitary cry; how could they understand the underwater silence of the crocs sidling among the water-lily stems? How could I tell them any of it?’
We know about those slithery nights and scorched plains because she has brought them to us so eloquently.
You’ve probably already heard of the American Eugenics Sterilization Program, in operation in the late 19th, early 20th century. If not … a quick résumé by way of context for today’s post.
The ‘program’ was designed to preserve and improve the strongest and ‘best’ within the society, and it did so by preventing the birth of babies to men and women with mental and social problems: the ‘mentally defective‘, ‘morons‘, the ‘feeble-minded‘, those with epilepsy, families on ‘welfare‘ – the very language makes us cringe today, doesn’t it? But sterilizing these unfortunate citizens was considered to be in the ‘public good‘. It was later judged – rightly – as a terrible violation of human rights, but it’s only in the last few years that any sense of justice or compensation has been offered.
Most states stopped this practice after World War II, uncomfortable with the comparison with the Nazi eugenic experiments in Germany, about which much more is known, but North Carolina continued, and is said to have carried out as many as 7600 such operations between 1929 and 1975. North Carolina was also the only state to give social workers the power to petition for the operation for specific individuals; elsewhere it was limited to those already in institutions.
It’s against this shameful period of American history that Diane Chamberlain sets her novel, Necessary Lies. As a former social worker herself, she’s probably got a certain edge when it comes to writing on this subject; she beautifully captures the ambivalence some professionals felt in determining what was in the best interests of their clients at a time when few choices existed; punitive views relating to sexual behaviour were prevalent; little was known about genetic inheritance; racial intolerance was rife; and class distinctions were very much the norm.
Jane Forrester is a young idealistic woman, newly married to a doctor, Robert, who disapproves of wives working. Jane unilaterally decides to postpone having children herself in order to become a social worker and help vulnerable families. When she encounters the Harts – two teenage girls, an illegitimate son, and an ageing grandmother – living in abject poverty, she simply cannot stand by while their rights are abused by well-meaning professionals. Before long she’s in deep trouble with her husband, her colleagues, and the police.
Chamberlain herself acknowledges that this was a research-heavy novel, but it doesn’t come across that way. The simplicity of the narrators’ voices, the un-sensationalised story line, the authentic emotions, combine to make this tale both challenging and gripping, heart-stopping and powerful. I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to be a Jane Forrester, but I’d definitely have wanted her on my side, deceptions and head lice notwithstanding! How about you?