Saturday, September 28, 2013

Truth in Advertising? Dark Places

I know the prevailing rule of thumb is that when you start a book, you must read one hundred pages minus your ages before giving up on it.  I haven't figured out how to apply that principle to audiobooks.  I always feel a certain constraint because the selection is more limited.  I could read print books without never buying another (although the likelihood of that happening is slim to none) but I have worked my way through the collections of three local libraries.  I find it harder and harder to find something to listening to on my 50-60 minute daily commute.

I had read Gillian Flynn's bestseller Gone Girl, which ended up dark enough, so when I started her prior novel Dark Places, I almost stopped listening at the first CD, not because the book wasn't engaging but the story was so dark and the protagonist was so damaged by events in her childhood, I wasn't sure I could stick with it.  I did.      

In this story, Libby Day, the protagonist has survived the murder of her mother and two sisters, a crime for which her brother Ben has been in prison for twenty-four years.  Libby testified against him at sever years old, but as the novel opens, she has basically existed on the money donated to her by well-meaning people after the tragedy.  The money, she learns, is running out, and she has no job and no prospects of income.  Then she gets a call from a young man who is a member of the "Kill Club," a large organization of people obsessed with unsolved murders.  He offers her money to come to the convention and appear at the Day Group's booth.  While the experience is maddening, she realizes she can profit from the group's desire to solve the mystery. (Ironically, until they suggest her brother's innocence, she's never considered he might not have killed the rest of their family.)  What follows is essential the solving of a mystery.  

Flynn alternates between chapters focusing on Libby, her mother, and her brother Ben.  The narrative alternates between the day or two before the murder and the present day.  Ben, a fifteen year old at the time of the murders was a high school misfit, who ends up with a senior girlfriend, new in town, with parents more absent than present.  Ben gets involved with her and her cousin (at least that's their story) in drugs, drinking, and eventually satanic rituals.

While Libby remains a sympathetic character throughout the novel, she doesn't inspire warmth. She seems so damaged by her experiences that she pushes everyone away.  If the other characters had an ounce of redeeming value, she might suffer more by comparison, but Ben's girlfriend Deandra comes across as so mean and manipulative that Libby can only shine by contrast.

My overall feeling as I finished the novel was that some messes can't ever be completely made right.  While Flynn doesn't try to tie a neat bow around the ending, she does leave the reader hopeful. She also left me eager to read something hysterically funny to offset the dark places she took me.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Gemma, Jane, and a little Dramatic Irony

I should be suspicious of retellings, but I'm not.  I loved Jane Eyre, and I love Rhys' The Wide Sargasso Sea.  I thought Smiley's One Thousand Acres was a marvelous treatment of King Lear, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a beautfiul story on its own, was such a magical Hamlet story.

When I finally began Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I picked it in part because I knew it was also a Jane Eyre story, set this time in Scotland in the late 1960s.  Gemma was born to a Scottish mother and Finnish father, but was brought back to Scotland by her uncle when her parents died.  The beloved uncle's death (of course) leaves her at the mercy of a merciless aunt and hateful cousins.  She ends up as a "working girl"--one of the youngest--at a boarding school, where she eventually makes a friend--who dies (of course). 

What makes this novel worth reading is not so much the familiar threads borrowed from Bronte, but the ways Livesey takes the story her own way.  There are enough similarities in the plot that I'm wanting to scream, "No, Gemma!  Watch your bags!"  But some of the more Gothic details have been eliminated.  Through naivete and bad luck, Gemma finds herself in a variety of situations--as an au pair to an orphaned daughter of a single mother in the Orkneys (with the dark and mysterious uncle--of course); sleeping in an unlocked church, rescued and nursed back to health by a potter and her partner and brother, and as a sitter and tutor to another motherless boy. 

Part of her quest takes her to Finnland, the home she hardly remembers, searching for any remaining kin.  Perhaps one of the only flaws in the plot is a little deus ex machina that brings the final threads together.  Livesey has the grace, though, to stop short of having Gemma deliver a final pronouncement to her "dear reader."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Kings and Queens of Roam

Anyone familiar with Daniel Wallace's Big Fish, his novel that went on to become a delightful major motion picture would recognize his quirky sense of humor, even magic in his newest novel The Kings and Queens of Roam.  The book almost defies description, but I'll try because it's one of the few books I've read, thinking the whole time, As soon as I finish this book, I'm going to have to read it again. 

Roam, the town in which the story is set, is slowly dying. In fact, many of the empty houses abandoned by those leaving as the town's silk industry dries up, are inhabited by the town's ghosts, who spend time waiting for housing by hanging out at the local bar, seen only by Digby, who runs the joint. 

The story centers around two sisters, Helen and Rachel McCallister, descendents of the town's founded, who came, along with a Chinaman he's basically kidnapped for his knowledge of silk-making.  The decision to settle was based solely on the presence of the necessary mulberry trees.

The unattractive Helen lives alone with her blind sister Rachel in their family home after their parents' tragic death, their car running off the bridge on their way to get water they hope will heal their daughter's eyes.  Because Rachel has no idea she is a beautiful as Helen is ugly, Helen decides to "swap faces with her.," convincing her innocent--and dependent--younger sister that people can't bare to look at her.

The odd cast of characters include the descendents of the elderly Elijah McCallister and his "friend and hostage" Ming Kai, whom McCallister had promised to reunite with his Chinese family, bringing instead a substitute wife and children.  Wallace also introduces one of several lumberjacks who return to Roam in the off season, one with a dog he loves but leaves chained up at home.

All the lives eventually intersect when Rachel runs away, thinking she is relieving her sister of the burden of caring for her. Rachel is rescued by a man who is just as dishonest to her as her sister was, in order to keep her dependent on him. 

Simple plot summary of this story, though, completely misses the charm of Wallace's magic.  I found myself lingering over passages, moving on only by promising I'd go back and read again to try to decide just what about the book and its telling captivated me so much. The story and the setting were heavy in fantasy, but the human nature was spot on.