Some books are more unkind to reviewers than others. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Crown, June 5), among its considerable mean-spirited charms, is the sort of book that sets out to torment its recommenders at least as much as its characters.
Gone Girl shows up with several surprises, and juices every possible bit of suspense out of them. It relies very thoroughly on the experience of reading the book for the first time, so for a reviewer to even point out that the story, which starts off with a wife’s disappearance and the suspicion cast on her husband, relies on a pair of characters who are both congenital liars already steals a little of Flynn’s thunder.
But that’s no more than the jacket copy gives away. Flynn strips away layers of deceit to reveal a carefully designed, meticulously executed plot. The beginning is structured as a whodunit, the second act tips over into a revenge plot, and the third act sidesteps the bloody Grand Guignol conclusion that a more gleefully down-market author might tack on.
The result runs the risk of seeming mechanical, but in the fashion of a ticking time bomb. The narrative starts with Nick on the day of his wife Amy’s disappearance, and alternates chapters between his first-person POV and her diary, which moves from their first meeting toward her disappearance. The construction is tight enough that even when Nick points out that he’s “a big fan of the lie of omission,” undermining the impression that we’ve been reading the candid thoughts of an untrustworthy man, it seems only a little clumsy; just a speed bump in Gone Girl’s headlong rush.
I. J. Kay’s Mountains of the Moon (Viking, July 5) is no less cagey about giving up its secrets, even if the book goes about its business in an almost opposite fashion, shattering a straightforward plot into glittering fragments and building up layers rather than stripping them away. It spoils nothing to explain that Mountains tells the story of a woman recently released from prison who finds a job in a doughnut factory and plans to spend her disability settlement on a trip to Africa. It makes things no more attractive to point out that her story is formed from the stuff of agony memoirs: childhood abuse and neglect, dead-end jobs and crime.
But the unrelenting bleakness is lightened by moments of absurd humor, like when Kay’s heroine, Louise, is faced with the task of removing a horse from the piss-soaked front room of a vacation cottage it had been stabled in; or unexpected kindnesses like a cafe owner’s willingness to spot a coffee and a meal to a just-released prisoner.
Very few of these moments are related in a straightforward way. Mountains’ main character cycles through a series of names and identities, starting with precocious 7-year-old Lulu King, who becomes Catherine in foster care and Kim by the time she goes to prison. Kay offers little help to her reader as adult Louise replays her past; she proceeds by associations and resonances, building up an image of a complete character through fragments. But if she’s uncompromising, Kay is never willfully difficult. Each fragment is vivid, whether 7-year-old Lulu’s transformation of the waste field behind her council block into the Masai Mara and herself into a painted barefoot warrior, or adult Louise standing apart from herself in a market in Nairobi.
What unites these fragments is their narrator’s singular voice, at turns innocent and wised-up, fragile and tough. It evolves with its character, always recognizable but tailored to fit each identity. And if Louise comes off as more earnest and genuine than Gone Girl’s Nick, she’s no less carefully constructed. Kay builds up layers of meaning and resonance atop a plain foundation; Flynn strips ambiguities away to display her story’s perfect bone structure.