Edith’s Diary (1977): Patricia Highsmith

★★★

We are all familiar with the concept of the unreliable narrator in fiction. But how much greater is that unreliability, how much greater the pinch of salt or the necessary adjustment, when we read someone’s diary! Many of us will have kept diaries, in our teens if not for longer. Looking back on them provides us with an opportunity to reassess the self-delusions of someone who is no longer the same ‘us’ are we are now. To read old diaries is to engage in a constant process of negotiation with a past self. Diaries give us the chance to tell our own stories: to present the world as we know it, with ourselves as the central characters, and everyone else swirling around us in secondary roles. We are unreliable, not through intention or malice, but through simple solipsism. Edith, the protagonist of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, also keeps a diary. It was given to her as a gift when she was young and idealistic, starting out on a life that she felt sure would be full of success. But increasingly, as we follow Edith through her life, that diary becomes a reminder of life’s unpleasant tendency not to fit in with nice, neat expectations. The appropriate narrative arc never quite seems to arise in real life. Family members, somehow, never quite fulfil the expectations we have of them. More and more, Edith finds herself having to correct the shortcomings of real life in her diary, an imagined world of perfection which could all too easily become more real than her own imperfect life.

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The Talented Mr Ripley (1955): Patricia Highsmith

★★★★½

Tom Ripley: Book 1

Two jolly good books in a row! I had a bit of a head start on Patricia Highsmith’s most famous novel, because I’ve seen the 1999 film adaptation several times. However, it’s been so long since I last watched it that I really couldn’t remember all the details, and had the pleasure of being caught up in the cat-and-mouse game of the plot. Will he or won’t he be caught?! Highsmith’s smart, calculating antihero Tom Ripley must, in a sense, be the patron saint (or devil) of introverts, with the caveat that most of us aren’t psychopaths. There’s a kind of wish fulfilment about this story, in which a mousy, impoverished nobody finds himself thrust into the glittering orbit of an American trust-funder – sampling a lifestyle which proves so irresistible that he is prepared to commit murder in order to keep enjoying it. Highsmith’s genius is to write this story from Ripley’s perspective, making his actions seem so self-evidently logical that you find yourself rooting for him to prevail. A classic thriller, well deserving of its status.

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