I have lived this last week with crazy people -- and the big family wedding is still a few weeks away! I spent the last week of August (quiet at home, quiet in town, and quiet in my store) doing some long delayed reading. I decided to steal some time for myself before the hectic fall season begins. Booksellers, spending all day surrounded by an abundance of what they love most, often have time only to read reviews and dream of locking the doors and curling up with a tempting selection. I didn’t lock the doors, but I let some of the work that is screaming and yelling wait until next week, when it will scream louder.
My first choice was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I had read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, a few years ago, and the subject matter made me so uncomfortable that I skipped Dark Places, her second book. I decided to try again because of the good reviews and the customer questions I have been fielding. The book was absorbing and I read it quickly, so I had time for another, Blacklands by Belinda Bauer, something I had wanted to read for a while.
On the surface, the two would seem to have little in common beyond being novels of psychological suspense. Gone Girl takes place in contemporary America, in a small town in Missouri, and the main characters are a young married couple. Blacklands takes place on the atmospheric moors of England, and the main characters are a pedophile serial killer and a 12-year-old boy. However, both deal with the issues of what is “normal,” how obsessions affect lives, and how the behaviors of previous generations influence the actions of their offspring.
In Blacklands, Steven Lamb, a young boy living in impoverished conditions in a small town on the moors wants nothing more than to have a normal life. He lives with his grandmother, mother and younger brother, but the overarching presence in the household is Billy Peters, who would be his uncle had he not been murdered by a pedophile at age 11. Billy’s body has never been found; the murderer is in prison and has revealed the burial places of some, but not all, of his victims. Steven’s grandmother spends her days, as she has since the murder, watching out the window as if her son will return. She is sarcastic, spiteful and critical. Billy’s room is preserved as it was when he died, and is off-limits to everyone. Steven is convinced that if Billy’s body can be found, his grandmother will have “closure” and life at home will be normal. Thus he spends his free time on the moors, digging in the area where the other bodies were located, convinced he can bring peace to his family.
Realizing the futility of his efforts, Steven decides to appeal to the murderer, Arnold Avery, and begins a correspondence with him. Steven thinks he understands his adversary, and even has moments when his obsession with setting things right causes him to lose empathy for others, just as the psychopath has. Steven, however, is not a psychopath, and snaps back from these moments in horror. He knows he is “writing to the Devil and asking for mercy,” and thinks this knowledge is enough to allow him to get the information he wants by tailoring his letters to his audience. Avery, of course, is manipulating Steven for his own purposes.
The married couple in Gone Girl appears on the surface to have a “normal” life. Although both have lost their remunerative and rewarding jobs in New York, a not uncommon occurrence these days, they have chosen to move to Nick’s hometown in Missouri to care for his aging parents and to restart their life together. When Amy disappears on the morning of their fifth anniversary, we are told their story from opposing points of view: Amy’s diaries going back to their first meeting, and Nick’s version of events told to police investigators, Amy’s parents, and his sister, as evidence mounts that he is responsible for her disappearance.
It is difficult to discuss the couple in Gone Girl without giving away the surprising turns the plot takes. I would love to have this book as a reading group choice and analyze the characters when everyone has read it. It becomes clear, though, that both characters are motivated by obsessions that dictate their behavior, and Amy, at least, appears to be without empathy. She was the model for Amazing Amy, a series of children’s books written by her parents, in which the child always makes good choices and never wavers from the “right” road. Her obsession is not only to appear perfect herself, but to mold those around her, especially her husband, into her image of flawlessness. Nick’s obsession is to understand Amy, perhaps in an effort to please her, but also to expose her true manipulative self.
I was struck while reading these books by the incredible ability these creatures without empathy have to understand other people while having no feelings for them. Avery not only understands Steven’s motivations, but also dispassionately manipulates a prison guard and a fellow prisoner with complete awareness of their personalities. Amy and Nick both know exactly how the other will respond to certain provocations. The effect on the person to be controlled is never a consideration except as it advances the manipulator’s interests. People who are not so detached from other humans think they understand these sociopaths but are constantly horrified when the lack of empathy is revealed. Nick’s sister knows he is a liar and tells him so, but still loves him; when his behavior finally alienates her, she is stunned. Steven thinks he knows how to deal with “the Devil,” but the reality makes him see how naïve he has been. He puts his own life in jeopardy to save his friend Lewis, who has frequently taken advantage of him, because he realizes his own arrogance has put Lewis at risk.
I highly recommend both of these books. Of the two, I found Gone Girl the more chilling, because the characters could be people I know. Just when the reader thinks the worst has happened, there is more, and it is all in the context of a seemingly ordinary existence. Flynn also shows the influence of the media on sensational crimes, from the celebrity lawyer to the enraged feminist TV host, and how it causes people to manipulate their stories and images even more. The focus is on Nick and Amy, and the supporting characters are less developed (bungling police, avaricious attorney, predatory press, loving sister, adoring but detached parents of Amy, abusive father of Nick); the draw here is the symbiotic love/hate relationship of two individuals.
Badlands may sound like a typical serial killer, child in jeopardy thriller, but the exquisite writing puts us immediately in the eerie atmosphere of the moors ; even when we see Steven in his daily life at school and at home, brooding gloom permeates the story. Bauer’s minor characters come alive through her portrayals of their small gestures: “Uncle Jude,” Steven’s mother’s “friend,” touches Steven briefly on the back of the neck after they dig a vegetable garden; his grandmother, scorning in words the new wheels Steven puts on her shopping trolley, flourishes it with pride when outside the house; his friend Lewis, whose father is present bodily but not emotionally, destroys the vegetable garden. Badlands is slightly more than 200 pages long; Bauer was a screenwriter before taking to fiction writing, and definitely knows how to show rather than tell. There is not a wasted word in the novel.
It was a good reading week, but emotionally taxing. I think my next choice will be something where the criminal motivation is simple greed or jealousy, something I can empathize with. Enjoy the last summer holiday!