I am quite superstitious about the first book that I read of any year. However after possibly one of my ropiest reading years back in 2016, I was feeling it even more. (Ironically I started 2016 with a brilliant book which frankly puts my superstitious theories to pot, but anyway.) So the big question came of what I should start 2017 with. I wanted something that would hook me in, be well written, have characters that delighted me be they villainous or heroic and be a little dark. Basically I wanted a book that infuses all of the elements which give me a good old book tingle.
So after much mulling I settled on Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, after all none other than Marieke Hardy had recommended it on The ABC Book Show (alas not personally over a cocktail or two) selling it in all its twisted glory. Plus I read and absolutely bloody loved Deep Water in 2015 and was smitten, before also loving Highsmith’s very different but also fantastic Carol – which I am ashamed to say I have not reviewed from last year, 2016 really was a pesky pest. So with rather a lot of pressure I opened up the first page…
Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1960 (2016 edition), fiction, 320 pages, bought by myself for myself
It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tussled bed out of the dark and silent boarding house to walk the streets.
He had so longed lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around his chest day and night. The evenings and the nights, when he wasn’t working, were a little bit worse that the daytime, that was all.
Seriously, how could anyone fail to be hooked from the opening paragraphs of This Sweet Sickness? Without meaning to come over all English Professor on you all, let us dissect that opener. A man, David, is overcome with jealousy. Instantly I am intrigued, jealousy being a fascinating and wicked subject and emotion. He lives in a dark and silent boarding house, gothic setting instantly ticked. Then comes ‘the Situation’ but what on earth is it, what on earth is going on? You simply have to read more don’t you, you can’t not. Well, I couldn’t anyway.
What transpires after this opening, and it transpires quickly so this is by no means a spoiler, is that David is in love with Annabelle. Annabelle is a woman who merely a few years ago, back in their home town, he had pondered asking to marry – and many people believed would have said yes – that is until another man asked and she said yes to him. However, despite the fact that they have a child together, it is David’s belief that Annabelle will leave her husband and their true love will soon run smooth, okay so there might be a slightly annoying child involved, but he would still have Annabelle wouldn’t he?
Yes, this is when you realise that David might be slightly unhinged, further confirmed when you realise that despite his pretty decent job, David is living economically in that slightly gothic boarding house because he has bought (and decorated, just to add another level of madness) a house for himself and Annabelle for when she sees sense and leaves everything for him. Yes, David is deluded and possibly a bit bonkers. Gripping stuff right?
The leaves fell, brown and yellow, and others turned red and clung for weeks longer. It was the first of November, and still Annabelle has not answered his letter. Should he send her another letter, or had she gotten into trouble with one letter and was Gerald now pouncing on all the mail that came in?
What I loved so much about This Sweet Sickness is also what I loved about Deep Water, though delivered just as originally whilst very differently… The way she goes inside the mind of someone who has quite possibly lost theirs. Not only is it a fascinating portrait into the mind of someone quite sick (she referred to many of her creations as her beloved little psychopaths) yet she does so in a way that humanises them and some of the deeds that they may or may not commit. As we follow David, slightly ironically following Annabelle, we feel for him even though we know what he is doing is creepy and even when he goes too far.
In a small part this is also because Annabelle quite frankly is a bit of a psycho-tease. As the novel went on I found her wet and insipid responses quite pathetic and questioned if actually it was adding some spice to her and her husband’s relationships. Anyway, I digress. If I was her I would have told him to absolutely do one, but that wouldn’t have made for novel, more a piece of flash fiction. Yet the main reason for us feeling for David when we probably (ha, definitely) shouldn’t, is that Highsmith somehow manages to make us empathise with him. After all haven’t we readers all fallen for someone who we thought loved us back but didn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all become slightly besotted with someone we shouldn’t? Erm, yes. Haven’t we all deluded ourselves that the one doesn’t know they are the one and so we buy a house we don’t live in but decorate how we imagine the one would want us to even though they don’t know about it and might not want to live in their too? Erm… just David then. But in other ways many of the things David has done we have done too, just slightly less extremely and I think that is where Highsmith’s true power lies.
She can also write a downright gripping and addictive plot. Chapters just long enough. As sense of impending dread that gets larger as you read on. Twists coming when you least expect them. And the ear, or eye, for a great main character who is flawed, nuts and yet you can’t get enough of and even sometimes like. She also knows how to add extra meat to the bone with a thriller, the plot and the main character aren’t enough and in This Sweet Sickness that comes in the form of an interesting friendship between David, his colleague Wes and Effie, a slightly lost young woman who I loved and felt deeply sorry for, which also becomes a slightly warped and strange love triangle all of its own.
I cannot recommend This Sweet Sickness enough; it is a thriller that should be up there with so many of the infamous classics it is quite remiss that it is not. As with Deep Water, which I also urge you to read, it has all the elements of a gripping thriller whilst being a fascinating insight into the darker parts of the human psyche. I know we get into the heads of some really warped characters in crime fiction right now, but never in the way or on the same level as we do in a Highsmith, all the more eerie as we sometimes empathise with it. Simply writing this review has made me want to run and take another of the shelves.