Just how well do you know the person you love? I expect many people would answer that question without thinking much about it: “very well”, “absolutely”, or “completely”. On the day of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne may well have given one of these stock phrases as well.
On that day he came home early from the bar that he runs with his twin sister Margot, responding to a phone call from a worried neighbour who has seen his front door wide open and his indoor-only cat Bleecker sitting outside. It was probably nothing; the man was a habitual drunk, after all. But Nick arrives home and finds the door really is open, and the cat is on the porch, apparently reluctant to go back inside. He enters, calling out to his wife, Amy. No reply. An iron is left plugged in like she was in the middle of ironing; Amy never leaves jobs half-done. Nick then enters the living room and sees furniture upended, books knocked over and still no Amy. She doesn’t answer her mobile. With panic rising inside him, Nick realises that it is time to call in the police and report his wife missing.
I picked up Gillian’s Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl with expectations of reading a story about what happens to someone when a person they love vanishes without a trace. In the beginning, I got this. Then the book began to morph, and by half way through it was clear that I was getting something rather different, and rather more exciting than your average mystery novel. There is a good deal more to tell about this tale than the scene above. Nick and Amy were once writers, living a privileged life in New York, he writing about culture for a respected journal and she preparing those personality quizzes that are popular with women’s magazines. Her parents were also writers, co-authoring a long-running children’s book series called Amazing Amy, with the main character being a perfect fictionalised version of their own daughter. Amy is wealthy, a minor celebrity, a woman attracted by Nick’s easy charm. He loves her drive, her commitment and the way she could be so cool to be around. They soon marry and their lives begin to fall apart.
The recession bites. Nick loses his job, and then Amy loses hers. People stop buying Amazing Amy books, and her easy-spending parents are forced to borrow her trust fund back. Then Nick’s mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. With nothing much pinning them to New York any more, they move back to his Midwestern home town of North Carthage to be near her. In a breathtakingly short period of time, Amy is transformed from independently wealthy New York professional to unemployed Missouri housewife caring for a dying mother-in-law. Nick and Amy change. They argue. They resent each other. She writes in her diary about being afraid of Nick. He tells his sister that he hates her. Then she disappears and it gets a whole lot more complicated.
This may sound like a standard crime story, but it is so much more than that. Nick and Amy takes turns at narration – him in the present tense, her through diary entries – so we see their story told from both sides. They compete to tell the tale of their relationship, they lie to one another and they lie to us, the reader. After all, they were both writers, adept at manipulating language and using words to their own end. Particularly clever are the treasure hunt clues that Amy has left for her husband for their anniversary, a sweet (or creepy) journey through their lives together that can be read in many different ways, almost like a literary Rorschach test. Every time we read them they seem to reveal a different perspective on Nick and Amy’s lives together, a different angle on their actions or thoughts.
Gone Girl is a very clever, nuanced story written by a masterful writer. Flynn has the power to twist and turn and continually surprise the reader, both in her plot developments and with her characters. At several places I would find myself agreeing with one of her protagonists, only to find that I had been manipulated later in the book, or siding with one of them only to change my mind a couple of chapters on as something else new was revealed. This is a dark story, completely unlike anything else I have read, and adds a whole new level to the unreliable narrator genre. Some people may find the occasionally explicit language off-putting, but I personally highly recommend reading it – at less than £4 on Kindle, you getting an awful lot of bang for your buck.
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