Review: Sharp Objects

I have determined that Gillian Flynn is the M Night Shymalan of literature.

…because boy does she love her plot twists, and throwing plot twists in the middle of her plot twists.

I probably would have enjoyed this book more when it came out, or before I had read any of Flynn’s other stories. Or before Gone Girl, and anyone who hadn’t read her books could remain ignorant of this reputation. But I have read some of her other stories, and I know all about her love of plot twists. I wasn’t really on the lookout for the Big Twist, but knowing that it was coming made both the twist and its red herring painfully obvious. I can’t say I’m surprised to find that her first novel contains the characteristics she’s become known for (twists, unlikeable female leads, shock factor). I guess it’s just good to know that she’s consistent.

I’ll start with the good: this is a thrilling mystery saturated in one woman’s abusive past and present. This book is an exploration of the ickiest, nastiest parts of humanity and what it takes for those things to surface. These things are difficult to read about, especially when Flynn gives us no sympathetic characters to associate with.

But even then, I had several major problems with this book. While reading, I couldn’t help but feel that each creative decision Flynn makes it is meant to manufacture shock. She wants us to feel appalled, surprised, disgusted–but all I felt was used and manipulated, because in order to write this very shocking story she takes advantage of something that’s very important to me: self harm.

There were a couple of things in relation to this topic that I thought Flynn did well. She illustrated the concept of self-harm as an addiction pretty well, and she (kind of) addressed the fact that people cut for many different reasons (in Camille’s case, her cutting is something like an excuse to physically care for herself).

But anyone who has turned to literature about self-harm in search of understanding, community, or any kind of solidarity should know that nothing in this book is written for cutters. Everything about cutting is for people who have never self-harmed, and nothing about Camille is meant to be relatable–she’s just one more way for Flynn to disgust her readers.

I could tell this was her intent from the time of Camille’s confession: “I am a cutter, you see.” The tone she takes when describing her condition is so different from the rest of her narration. I can’t quite put my finger on what bothered me so much about the shift, but it felt so contrived that I nearly laughed out loud before feeling sick to my stomach.

Flynn also perpetuates the myth of the “real cutter” as opposed to the “fake cutter.” That is, someone who hurts themselves for attention vs. someone who hurts themselves for other personal reasons. I am so done with people trying to make this distinction. There are a lot of reasons that people cut, burn, bruise, and scratch themselves, and unless you are in some way professionally caring for their mental and physical health, those reasons are none of your business.

“But Kristen,” says my imaginary stand-in for the worst of humanity, “how will I judge the validity of someone’s self-harm if I don’t know why they do it? How will I determine how much sympathy they deserve?” My answer to you, literal garbage human, is that you DON’T. Ever. People who self harm need (and, I can’t believe this has to be said, but yes, deserve) support and understanding as much as anyone suffering from any mental illness. Full goddamn stop.

What all of that rant boils down to is that people who self-harm are not a tool to add shock value to your crappy book. I might have been able to forgive some of the lesser elements of Sharp Objects that I disliked, but never that.

This post also appeared on Cannonball Read.

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