The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell
Little Brown, September 2013
Source: Publisher via Twitter giveaway
While I’ve only read Winter’s Bone and a couple stories in The Outlaw Album, I consider myself a Daniel Woodrell fan, and I am very impressed with his latest book, The Maid’s Version. I was entranced from the beginning, which I happened to read aloud. Woodrell’s prose is so good: evocative, dense, and he captures the feeling of the young grandson listening to his grandmother Alma, the maid of the title, tell the story of the Arbor Dance Hall Explosion that killed forty-two people, including her sister Ruby, in 1929.
The story is the story of the town of West Table, Missouri, which is in the Ozarks. There are vignettes about the people who died, and there are stories about Alma and her family through a number of generations. I know it’s common to say that the town or the setting was a character too, and I think in The Maid’s Version West Table is a character whose every aspect is laid bare: classes, genders, businesses, crimes, and more. Life without the social safety nets established after the Great Depression was bleak.
The Maid’s Version is a short book– only 164 pages in my version– and I found it best to read it in small chunks in order to retain more of the characters names and their relationships. As I said earlier, the writing is dense. The denseness is not a criticism of the writing at all, I just had to adjust my usual reading style to enjoy the book more. I also think it would be great in audio, based on the snippets I read aloud.
I purposely avoided talking about the plot and details of the story both because the book is so short and because the quality of the writing struck me even more than the story, which is rare for me. The Maid’s Version is one of my favorite books of the year.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
SPOILER WARNING. It feels slightly ridiculous to begin this review with a spoiler warning since this book came out almost a year ago, but this post will touch on parts of the plot and some details about the characters that will ruin the story for readers who somehow haven’t heard details about this book.
Gone Girl is the story of the disappearance of Amy Dunne on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary as told by Amy and her husband Nick. They are transplanted New Yorkers who moved to Missouri after losing their jobs as journalists and after Nick’s mother became ill. Nick is suspected of murdering his wife, and the stories converge on the day of Amy’s disappearance. All I knew about the book going in was to expect a big twist (and I pretty much predicted it).
I realized pretty quickly that this book is not the usual crime novel, and I think I would describe it more accurately as a true crime novel. There are a lot of references to the coverage on the Internet, 24-hour cable news channels, and other media as Nick is under scrutiny by the police for the murder of his wife. I’d much rather have a story mediated by the perspective of a private investigator or police officer trying to unravel a crime than have the story told by the accused or by the media. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been sucked into some sensationalized trials or TV shows featuring a murderous spouse, but those stories are not as interesting to me as looking at the process of solving a crime.
I’ve also realized that I am just not a fan of books or sections of books that get into the minds of the killer or criminal. I don’t care for serial killer books though I do read them (it’s hard to avoid them), and I’m really turned off by gruesome italicized sections–especially prologues–in the murderer’s heads. I guess I’m not that fascinated by criminal psychology. Maybe, in the case of Gone Girl, I’m not interested in the criminal characters because they are such sociopaths/ borderline personalities/ etc. who don’t care about the people around them. They can’t. It’s all surface. I felt like I was watching a spectacle as I read.
So why did I finish this book? I wanted to find out how Amy committed her crimes, I wanted to see how Nick felt at the end, but, frankly, I wasn’t that interested in why because they are pretty awful characters as people.
On a positive note, The Cool Girl rant in the book is very good.
Now on to the next book!
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Three Rivers Press, 2006
2007 Steel Dagger and 2007 New Blood Dagger
Source: library copy
So I decided to read Sharp Objects after hearing and seeing so many rave reviews about Gillian Flynn’s latest book, Gone Girl. I wasn’t sure what to expect except that the story would be disturbing, and my expectations were definitely met. It’s a story that leaves me uneasy, and I’m not sure I’m in the mood to read more Gillian Flynn for a long while.
Sharp Objects is narrated by Camille Preaker, a crime reporter for a small Chicago paper, who returns to her hometown in southern Missouri to cover two murders of young girls. She is a bit standoffish and closed off from other people, and as the story progresses we learn what problems she’s had in the first 10 years of her adult life and, more importantly, what her childhood did to her psyche. Camille is not the model of journalistic ethics, but I’m not sure what reporter in a crime novel really is: it would make for a boring story. More interestingly, however, is how unreliable a narrator she is, primarily because she’s so in denial about her childhood and family life as a defense mechanism. An oblivious reporter who jumps into several conflicts of interest while reporting on a series of small-town murders is not the most sympathetic choice of narrator.
What does work in this novel is the air of weirdness and eventually horror as Camille returns to her hometown for the first time in years. Not only is her thirteen-year-old half-sister Amma an odd mixture of hostility and sweetness, but Camille’s old friends and neighbors in the town of 2,000 odd people of Wind Gap are a sordid and sad lot as well. Also, the pacing in this book is quite good. It’s not fast-paced at all, but it feels organic: I didn’t feel bogged down by the investigation or its dead ends like I often do in other crime novels. Flynn doles out the revelations bit by bit, and the story grows odder and odder.
It’s difficult to say more about this book without entering into spoiler territory, but this is definitely a book that I want to discuss more in a future post.