By Katie Tobin
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
Gillian Flynn’s debut novel is undoubtedly my favourite read of the first lockdown. A narrative hybrid of the Southern Gothic and detective genre, Sharp Objects is a harrowing look at small-town life, grief, trauma, and gender. Following the murder and disappearance of two young girls in her hometown of Wind Gap, journalist Camille Preaker returns to cover the story and fight her demons as she’s haunted by her sister’s unexpected death and a recent visit to a psychiatric hospital.
The story slowly pieces together the mystery in such a carefully constructed way, you’ll wonder how you didn’t work it out sooner. Flynn’s novel unearths the effects of repression on the psyche and the ugliness buried beneath the surface of a picturesque small Southern town that prides itself on tradition. As Camille tells the reader, this is a town that demands the “utmost femininity in its fairer sex”.
This novel, however, isn’t for the faint of heart. There are graphic depictions of rape, mutilated bodies, self-harm, and alcoholism. The book’s whodunnit murder mystery isn’t so much the focus as the links between Camille’s past, present and future. But for a thrilling read with a near-perfect HBO miniseries adaptation, I couldn’t recommend Sharp Objects enough.
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Published in 2017, almost two years before the Shamima Begum citizenship debate that enthralled Britain, Kamilla Shamsie’s Home Fire touches on a multitude of contemporary issues in her retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone. The novel poses questions of citizenship, immigration, politics, allegiance, and love in a thrilling but condensed story.
After reading Home Fire for my undergrad degree, the book quickly circulated my family home, and then our local neighbourhood with rapid speed. Without revealing too much of the plot and its various twists and turns, I’d best summarise the plot as “the love affair between the Home Secretary’s son and a girl whose twin has joined ISIS”. I feel this hook is thrilling enough alone to entice in the average reader.
A heartfelt look at how deep our prejudice can run, Home Fire encompasses national issues on a small scale. In light of the current issues faced by the Islamic community throughout the UK, this book is a vital read.
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
I tentatively found a copy of Rooney’s debut novel after finding it in a box labelled “please take me” during the first lockdown. I was initially cautious to read it after the Normal People hysteria of March, wary that Rooney may be the subject of mass overhyping and merely a literary fad. I was wrong, and I successfully finished the book by that evening.
Undoubtedly, the central characters are unlikable and, in certain respects, intangible. The bizarre relationship dynamic that plays out between Frances, Bobbi, and married couple Melissa and Nick is perturbing and mostly unpredictable. The characters and the story that unfolds do not fit the cookie-cutter-mould of how we expect reality to play out, but in veering away from cliches, Rooney shines. Frances and Bobbi’s indefinable bond of lovers, best friends, and sisters, seemingly all at once, echoes the chaos of student (and queer) life.
I think it’s worth noting that this book is challenging. Not because of the complexity of Rooney’s style or the intricate plot, but purely because of the realness she so perfectly captures. It stirs up a sense of nostalgia for unhealthy relationships and friendships we all have had at some point. Undoubtedly, Rooney’s prose and the psychological intricacies of her characters make for emotive and unsettlingly accurate reads. She somehow has perfectly captured the awkward nuance of navigating your early twenties and all the fevered desire, frustration, and existential crises that they bring.
Illustration: Alex McLaren