We all know books can have deep effects on our lives. They make us think, feel, and wonder. They expose us to new things and they become intimate friends. They are a source of power in more ways than one. And you’d think I would put a little more effort into how I select and read them.
Especially since I do juggle two books at a time: one I read, and one I listen to on audio. But when it comes to picking what I’m going to read next, or listen to next, I don’t have any system I follow. I tend to just grab what is in front of my face. Or, in some cases, what’s available to check out from the library.
But I’m thinking I need a system because I recently found myself in a melancholic cycle of switching between a dark and intense audiobook, and an equally dark and intense printed book. Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I listened to the former; read the latter.
Now let me preface by saying both of these books are fantastic. Beautifully written; masterfully told; suspenseful, gripping, and engrossing – I actually found myself arguing with myself over which book to focus my attentions on. Generally, I can switch back and forth between an audiobook and printed book with no problems. But these two novels were so delectable, I couldn’t stop one to pick up the other. If I was listening to Dark Places, I had to keep listening. If I was reading Everything I Never Told You, I had to keep reading.
So yes, these two books really are incredible, and well worth a read (or listen).
But they are both very dark, very intense, and they both probe deeply into the human psyche. Which can get very disturbing very fast.
In other words, these books can make you feel like humanity sucks. That’s it. Plain and simple. We are an awful species – cruel, evil, thoughtless, heartless, self-centered, self-absorbed, and just plain stupid. We do terrible things to each other and to our surroundings. We really are the dirt encrusted in the piece of chewed gum on the bottom of a shoe. And that is where we belong.
But how incredible is it that books can worm their way under your skin like that? They can make you feel so much and so intensely. And it’s not like either of these books come right out and say humanity sucks. That is the true genius there; the authors create such enveloping worlds with such palpable characters, you are sucked right in like Alice when she fell down the well… or through the looking glass… or whatever.
In Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, 16-year-old Lydia Lee is found dead in the lake near her small town home. Her family, including parents Marilyn and James, older brother, Nath, and younger sister, Hannah, are left to cope with the numbing shock, grief, and two big questions: why? And how? As each of them seeks to find the answers, the story of the Lee family starts to emerge. How Marilyn, the bright, blonde, and beautiful aspiring doctor met and fell in love with the quiet and exotically Chinese history professor, James. How both Marilyn and James struggle to accept that some dreams are lost, and lives can change in unexpected ways. How the effects of those struggles can have profound influences on their children. And how those struggles shape the expectations James and Marilyn have for each of their three children.
Because it is not a spoiler alert to say that Lydia was James and Marilyn’s favorite child. Favorite to the point of neglect – they scorned their son, Nath, and completely ignored their younger daughter, Hannah. But Lydia? James and Marilyn pinned all their hopes and dreams on their middle daughter, and as you can probably guess, they had such high expectations for her, she had no chance of ever living up to them. A situation we hear about far too often, and can end in suicide (not that I’m saying Lydia committed suicide … no spoiler alerts here).
But what is even more depressing? The treatment of the other two children. Nath, who wants to become an astronaut and spends every waking minute studying about space… is completely rebuffed by his mother and mocked by his father. And Hannah! Neither James nor Marilyn even acknowledge her existence!!
And the worst part? There is probably a family – at least one, if not more – that is exactly like the Lee’s, right down to keeping an ignored third child in an attic bedroom.
As dark as Everything I Never Told You is, it still has a candle’s flicker of light above Dark Places. 30-something drifter Libby Day is at best disdainful, and at worst apathetic about life in general. She doesn’t work. She doesn’t take care of her house in Podunk, Kansas, her daily life, or herself. She just floats…waiting to die. She has good reason though. When she was 7-years-old, her entire family was murdered in what the police ruled a grisly satanic ritual. Libby was the only survivor. Well, Libby and her 15-year-old brother, Ben, who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the crime. A conviction handed down to him because of Libby’s own eyewitness testimony.
When Libby is contacted by a club of true crime enthusiasts who are obsessed with her family’s murder, and asked to appear at a conference, she reluctantly agrees. A decision she may live to regret since this particular group believes Ben is innocent, and they want Libby to help free him from prison. Now doubting her own belief Ben is the killer, Libby starts the journey to find the truth behind that dark night 25 years earlier, and the events that led to the unfathomable tragedy. If Ben isn’t the killer, then who did murder the Day family? And why?
Sounds like the typical, ordinary, bodies-piling-up-faster-than-dirt-on-anthills murder mystery, but alas, Gillian Flynn is far too talented to be just ordinary. Dark Places explores that very idea: the dark places of the human mind. Libby, Ben, and their mother Patty are all narrators in alternating stories that slowly reveal the mystery of the murders and the last day of Patty’s tragic life.
And holy shizpickles, what a tragic life. Patty is probably the only character in the book who is somewhat decent. Even before unspeakable tragedy befell her family, Libby was apathetic and closed off. Of course Ben is a possible Satanist, so he is a foregone train wreck. But some of these other characters? Libby’s oldest sister, Michelle, who was 10-years-old when she was killed, is a ruthless b—h. Libby’s dad, Runner, is an alcoholic and gambler who comes home long enough to steal money from his destitute family, and then takes off again. Ben’s girlfriend, Diondra, and her best friend, Tre, are pillars of society – not. They are both drug-addled, constantly drunk, prone to petty crime, and Tre is rumored to slaughter cows in sadistic rituals.
No one in this book is likable. No one.
It was a vicious cycle of moving from one despicable character to the next… and I didn’t get off that ride until the very last page. Dark Places presented humanity at its basest, and I still had to know what happened.
As I mentioned, we are one awful species.
But as I also mentioned, I applaud Gillian Flynn and Celeste Ng for creating these worlds that were so touchably real. It is a rare talent to put some words down on a page in such a way that a whole new reality springs forth from them. And that may be enough to atone for all the horrible things people do to each other…