Friday, 14 June 2013

Book review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

(Note: I have tried not to have too many spoilers in this review, but it is hard to discuss such an interesting book without giving away a few points. If you are afraid of spoiling your enjoyment of the book then please just take my eight word review: well written, interesting concepts poorly implemented, unsatisfying ending).

This is a crime brook with a difference: instead of the usual routine single or multiple murders, it details the disappearance of Nick Dunne's wife Amy on their fifth anniversary, and the way suspicion slowly falls on him as the investigation progresses. Indeed, the evidence against him seems almost too perfect.

The story is initially told from two perspectives: Amy's historic diary entries and narration that slowly unveils the minutiae of their relationship, and Nick's current narration as the police investigation gathers pace. Both are unreliable narrators; sadly, in Nick's case it is all too obvious to the reader that he is unreliable. Indeed, one of the many 'twists' in the plot is so well signposted that it would have been a twist if it had not occurred.

A big problem with this book are the characters' occupations. Both Nick and Amy are writers - or more accurately were, as both have lost their jobs by the start of the book. Whilst writing is a perfectly good and worthy occupation, I am bored about reading about writers. It shows a distinct lack of imagination by the author: Nick could just have easily been an engineer, a shopkeeper, anything: the fact he was a writer is absolutely incidental and not vital to the plot.

In a similar vein, although they are both poor at the beginning of the book (part of the cause of the stress on their relationship), Amy has been rich in the past via a trust fund set up by her parents. She also has a ludicrously rich associate, of the six-room remote lakeside chalet type. Frankly, it feels unrealistic.

At the heart of this book is the story of a psychopath. Sadly the psychopath is neither particularly interesting or realistic. If you read about psychopaths then they should at least be interesting; that is not the case here. That might be forgiveable aside from the fact the other main characters are also fairly uninteresting.

The exception is Nick's twin sister, Go. Indeed, Go is about the only sympathetic major character in the entire piece, and her descent from trusting her twin completely to doubting his story is well written and believable.

The book is overlong and overwritten: the detail may contain good prose, but much of it does not progress the plot. There are also repeated details; not just from the two narrators (which if showing the same event from different perspectives is fine), but multiple times from the same character. The author's hunger for us to understand these points is like being repeatedly hit over the head with a wooden Punch and Judy character.

Indeed, it is a book of two halves. The first half is far too long and needs some heavy trimming, especially of repeated information. It is rather heavy, and much of the information given superfluous. The second half is much better, with twist and turns designed to keep the reader guessing; I read two-thirds of it in an afternoon, which is unusual for me.

One entertaining part of this book is the way that subsidiary characters react to the growing evidence against Nick. At first he has sympathy and the town rallies to find Amy. But the sympathy becomes a widespread impression that he is guilty as the evidence against him is revealed. A sympathetic interview changes that and makes the locals believe he is innocent, but only until the next piece of evidence comes along. The whole trial-by-media subplot is well handled, but is really worthy of its own book.

There is also a segment about the way we play roles in society: Amy admits to playing roles that allow her to fit in amongst different strands of society (the so-called 'Cool Girl' personae), but this interesting concept is relatively underdeveloped.

Which brings me to the crunch: whilst this book is well-written and has an unusual and enticing storyline, it sucks. It sucks big time. Why? Without creating too many plot spoilers, it breaks one of the golden rules of crime thrillers. Justice is not done.

As a reader, you want the story to come to a conclusion with some form of justice done. Sherlock Holmes is an interesting example; in several of his stories he lets a criminal get away with their crime because of the circumstances. In the case of the murder of blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, he decides that Milverton was a far worse person than the murderer who had been a victim of his blackmail. The reader sees that, although the murderer escaped, justice has been done. Revenge can be justice.

However in this story the criminal gets everything he or she wants, and makes everyone's life a living misery. This was not the ending I wanted from the book, and it was deeply dissatisfying. Justice was not done, and it left me feeling cheated as a reader. It also makes absolutely no sense: the criminal's story is utterly unbelievable, yet is swallowed by the police, family and friends. A disappearance is investigated by a large police team, whilst a murder is ignored.

Some reviews state that the end if ambiguous: it is not. There is no ambiguity, no nuance. It is an ending, but an empty and unfulfilling one. If the author's intention is for there to be a sequel then I fear she will be out of luck: the story has progressed as far as it can and the characters are not likeable enough to carry another book. Indeed, there are two or three concepts within that could carry a book each, but they are merged and squashed into 'Gone Girl' and they remain substantially unexplored.

This book is a classic example of an excellent writer who seems to have no idea either of plotting, or of what her readers will want from the book. I give it a deeply disappointing 2 out of 5 stars