Tag Archives: Jill Dawson

Deep Water – Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of those authors who I have been meaning to read for years and years. (I think I said I would write a list of such authors I have meant to get to a while back, oops maybe in the next week or so.) Recently Virago sent me a set of some of her reissued novels and so I was left with the delightful choice of which one to read first. I settled on Deep Water as my first choice after authors Stella Duffy, Sarah Hilary and Jill Dawson all waxed lyrical on how marvellous they both thought it was, and goodness me were they right.

9780349006260

Virago Modern Classics, paperback, 1957 (2015 edition), fiction, 340 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

“Vic didn’t dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don’t dance give to themselves. He didn’t dance simply because his wife liked to dance.” As Deep Water opens we are thrown straight into a very middle class evening of wine dancing and merriment at a house in the suburbs of Little Wesley. Vic Van Allen is observing the merriment rather than joining in with it, specifically watching over his wife Melinda who spends most of the evening dancing, rather indiscreetly, with her latest male admirer Ralph. We soon learn that this has become a bit of a regular, rather annoying, aspect to the marriage of Vic and Melinda, whilst for a while now Vic has let Melinda have small infatuations they have started to become too public.

In a rash moment of annoyance, the otherwise well liked and thought of Vic manages to whisper in Ralph’s ear ‘If I really don’t like somebody, I kill him …You remember Malcolm McRae, don’t you?’ It transpires Ralph does, and Vic’s ruse, which is of course untrue, works as Ralph backs off, even though the whole town soon starts talking about it. Yet within weeks Melinda has become very close with pianist Charley, new to town, someone who doesn’t seem to scare of so easily and within days Vic’s fiction becomes much more of a reality.

It was astonishing to Vic how quickly the story travelled, how interested everybody was in it – especially people who didn’t know him well – and how nobody lofted a finger or a telephone to tell the police about it. There were, of course, the people who knew him and Melinda very well, or fairly well, knew why he had told the story, and found it simply amusing. But there were people who didn’t know him or Melinda, didn’t know anything about them except by hearsay, who had probably pulled long faces on being told the story, and who seemed to take the attitude that he deserved to be hauled in by the police, whether it was true or not. Vic deduced that from some of the looks he got when he walked down the main street of the town.

It is very difficult to write about Deep Water without giving too much away. I think it is fair to say we know from the off that things are not going to go well for Vic and Melinda and that there is going to be a murder (or maybe more) ahead. This would frankly be well trodden ground if it wasn’t for two things, Vic himself and Vic and Melinda’s marriage, which I think compel this into being a thriller rather unlike any that I have read before.

Firstly we have Vic’s character which is possibly one of the most interesting insights into someone as they go down a dark road to disastrous actions. From the start we are made to sympathise with Vic. He is a man who leads a decent harmless life. He has wealth via an allowance (which admittedly we never know much about) and so has set up his own small press publishing lesser known works which he goes in as and when he feels like, yet employing one of the locals full time. Outside the hobby of his business he likes to spend the day reading, contemplating, oh and breeding snails and letting bed bugs use his blood while he learns about them. Yes, a slight oddness lies within Vic but as we watch the way his wife carries on around him, we forgive him, forget it or just think it’s adorably geeky.

How many of us would allow their partner/husband/wife bring back different beau’s every few months, they are clearly having sex with, and invite them for dinner and indeed let them stay till the small hours dancing together in front of you willing you to go to bed in the former spare room which is now yours? No, me neither. Yet Vic doesn’t seem bothered, despite their having one child he remains asexual in many ways not responding to other local wives flirtations, if anything it seems some kind of penance or game he just deals with. Well, until he reaches his limits, which to be fair we all would. (Note – if you think I have given everything away, not a chance, we aren’t past page 50 yet!)

Vic said in a light, joking tone, ‘It’s too bad I’m married to you, isn’t it? I might have a chance with you if I were a total stranger and met you out of the blue. I’d have money, not be too bad looking, with lots of interesting things to talk about -’
‘Like what? Snails and bed bugs?’ She was dressing to go out with Charly that afternoon, fastening around her waist a belt that Vic had given her, tying round her neck a purple and yellow scarf that Vic had chosen carefully and bought for her.
‘You used to think snails were interesting and that a lot of other things were interesting, until your brain went to atrophy.’
‘Thanks. I like my brain fine and you can have yours.’

The other mystery, aside from the murders of the past and any that may follow, that we become fascinated is how on earth Vic and Melinda’s marriage ended up in such a horrific state. Unlike War of the Roses (one of my favourite films) or Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn is a huge Highsmith fan and discusses Deep Water in this edition) this is not a case of marital misunderstandings turning to malice or two deeply unlikeable people marrying each other and causing the other hell, this is the case of one woman flaunting her affairs, toying with her husband and getting away with it. Melinda is all the more fascinating as whilst we never get inside her head, which I admit I would have liked to, we watch spiral out of control as she loses control of the situation she has created. It is fascinating as we watch these two characters unfold and even more fascinating as we start to side with one of them. I will leave it at that.

I loved, if that is the right word, my first foray into Highsmith so much. Deep Water is one of the most entertaining, snarky, camply dark, vicious and twisted psychological thrillers I have read. It is also one of the most unusual as the reader watches a sociopath come to the fore from their normally meek mild mannered self… and we egg him on and like him, even understanding him oddly, the whole time. It is a fascinating insight into the mind of a killer, if this is a prime example of what Highsmith fondly described as “my psychopath heroes”, I can’t wait to meet the rest. If you haven’t read Deep Water then honestly, erm, dive in – you are in for an absolute treat.

Who else has read Deep Water and what did you make of it? Which other Highsmith novels have you read and would you recommend? I have already got my next Highsmith lined up and ready to read. I was going to read The Talented Mr Ripley next but the film, which is brilliant, is still rooted in my head so I am going to save that a while. I cannot wait for This Sweet Sickeness to come out next year in print, as Marieke Hardy brought it to ABC’s The Book Club and it sounded brilliant. I have decided that I am going to give Carol/The Price of Salt a whirl next, especially as the film with (the always brilliant) Cate Blanchet is coming out soon. I genuinely can’t wait.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Patricia Highsmith, Review, Virago Modern Classics

Fiction Uncovered 2012

I have been waiting for this list of books to be announced for weeks, finally it is here, the Fiction Uncovered list of titles for 2012. If you are currently thinking ‘well what on earth is that’ let me explain, this is not a longlist of books of which one will eventually win a prize, it is list of eight titles that may just have gone under the radar and have been deemed, by a team of judges, as being books we all should have read because they are excellent yet didn’t get the buzz that they deserved. These selected titles are then promoted in book shops (including the lovely Book Barge) around the UK and in libraries, lovely. Well now it is back for 2012. I even voted for a book I wanted to see on the list if I were a judge, I must go to that list again to get even more recommendations. Anyway…

So why am I so excited? Well in part it’s the fact that it is another list of books that I might want to read (I have to admit I think I actually want to real ALL the books on this years list) and because its pushing books which might not have been pushed. The other reason is more personal as last year this is where I first heard about, and then tried, ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall and we all know how that read went don’t we? I was also introduced to Ray Robinson’s fantastic novel ‘Forgetting Zoe’. I have both their previous novel/s to read in the future. I also started both Tim Pears ‘Disputed Land’, which I loved but was a little too close to home at a specific time so I had to stop, and Sarah Moss’ ‘Night Waking’ which I was loving but had to crack on with reading the Green Carnation Prize submissions, which is what could stop me from reading this years eight which, with my brief thoughts below each ones blurb, are…

Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke by Peter Benson (Alma Books)

When young Elliot gets a labourer’s job at Mr Evans’s after being sacked from a pig farm for liberating six of its sows, he thinks he’ll have even more opportunities to lean on gates or stare at fields. But his best mate Spike keeps getting him into trouble, first by showing him what is being grown in a tucked-away polytunnel, and then turning up at his caravan’s door with a van full of weed. As Elliot tries to help his friend get rid of the hot merchandise, they find themselves at the receiving end of a cruel cat-and-mouse game.

Simon says: The fact this has polytunnel (my mother has just got some she is obsessed about) in the blurb makes me think of The Archers and we all know how much I love that show. It also sounds like an English countryside book, which I also love. I must read it.

My Former Heart by Cressida Connolly (Fourth Estate)

When she grew up, Ruth would say that she could place the day that her mother had decided to go away. She didn’t know the actual date, but she recalled the occasion: it was on the afternoon of a wet day, early in 1942, during a visit to the cinema. She thought she could even pinpoint the exact moment at which Iris had made up her mind to go, leaving her only child behind. Neither of them could have guessed then that they would never live together again. Spanning the second half of the last century, “My Former Heart”, Cressida Connolly’s mesmerising first novel, charts the lives of three generations of Iris’s family, the mother who walked away from her child. Ruth will be deserted again, many years later, by a husband she loves, but not before she has had two children by him. She leaves London to live with her uncle, where she creates a new life for herself with another woman. And we follow the lives of her two children, trying to make a place for themselves in the world in the shadow of the family that precedes them. With its large cast of fascinating characters, this is an outstanding novel about families and their ability to adapt. It surely marks the beginning of long career as a novelist for Cressida Connolly.

Simon says: The LGBT twist in the blurb interests me and would make it stand out in its type of fiction if you know what I mean. I was slightly worried when I saw this was compared to Alan Hollinghursts latest novel, only this is only 240 pages. I am intrigued.

Lucky Bunny by Jill Dawson (Sceptre)

Crime is a man’s business, so they say, though not according to Queenie Dove. A self-proclaimed genius when it comes to thieving and escape, she reckons she’s done pretty well. Yes, she had a tough childhood in London’s East End during the Depression, with a father in and out of prison. But she survived the Blitz, learned how to get by on her wits, and soon graduated from shoplifting to more glamorous crimes. Daring, clever and sexy, she thrived in the Soho of the Krays and the clubs of Mayfair, fell wildly in love, and got away with it all. Or did she? For beneath Queenie’s vivacious, unrepentant account lies another story – of punishment and loss, and a passionate relationship that turns sour. To the end, she believes she was lucky, but did she simply play the hand that fate dealt her? Vividly portraying the times and circles she moved in, Lucky Bunny captures an intriguing, engaging woman as it questions how far we are in control of our own lives.

Simon says: This has been on my radar for ages, so reading it is a no brainer, in fact it will be a done deal.

Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer (Unbound)

‘Crushed Mexican Spiders’ is classic Fischer. Don’t be fooled by the title: the poet laureate of London grime is on home ground as a women returns home to discover the key to her Brixton flat no longer works – Haunting images and crisp one-liners are about all that link it with the second tale, ‘Possibly Forty Ships’, the true story of the Trojan War. In a scene straight out of a Tarantino movie, an old man is being tortured, pressed to reveal how the greatest legend of all really happened. Let’s just say it bears scant resemblance to Homer: ‘If you see war as a few ships sinking in the middle of the waves, a few dozen warriors in armour, frankly not as gleaming as it could be, being welcomed whole-heartedly by the water, far, far away from Troy, if you see that as war, then it was a war – ‘ The stories are being illustrated by the work of the acclaimed Czech photographer Hana Vojakova .

Simon says: At a mere 64 pages and with illustrations I want to read this just to see how it is so powerful in so few words, I also like the Unbound project so if I read it I will kill two bords of intrigue with one stone.

Hit and Run by Doug Johnstone (Faber and Faber)

Driving home from a party with his girlfriend and brother, all of them drunk and high on stolen pills, Billy Blackmore accidentally hits someone in the night. In a panic, they all decide to drive off. But the next day Billy wakes to find he has to cover the story for the local paper. It turns out the dead man was Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord and, as Billy struggles with what he’s done, he is sucked into a nightmare of guilt, retribution and violence. From the author of the acclaimed “Smokeheads”, “Hit & Run” is another pitch-black psychological thriller.

Simon says: I heard about this thanks to a review of Kim’s on Reading Matters and was intrigued. I like the fact a thriller has made the list too, I like a good thriller, only concern is it might be a bit ‘blokey’ for me though that could be a good test.

When Nights Were Cold by Susanna Jones (Mantle)

In turn of the century London, Grace Farringdon dreams of polar explorations and of escape from her stifling home with her protective parents and eccentric, agoraphobic sister. But while Grace longs to cross glaciers and survive sub-zero conditions with her hero Ernest Shackleton, she seems destined for nothing more than marriage, or a life shackled to the family home. But when Grace secretly applies to Candlin, a women’s college filled with intelligent, like-minded women, she finally feels her ambitions beginning to be take shape. There she forms an Antarctic Exploration Society with the gregarious suffragette Locke, the reserved and studious Hooper and the strange, enigmatic Parr, and before long the group are defying their times and their families by climbing the peaks of Snowdonia and planning an ambitious trip to the perilous Alps. Fifteen years later, trapped in her Dulwich home, Grace is haunted by the terrible events that took place out on the mountains. She is the society’s only survivor and for years people have demanded the truth of what happened, the group’s horrible legacy a millstone around her neck. Now, as the eve of the Second World War approaches, Grace is finally ready to remember and to confess…

Simon says: The phrases ‘turn of the century’, ‘agoraphobic sister’ and ‘polar explorations’ have me officially sold. I am going to beg, steal or borrow a copy of this.

The Light of Amsterdam by David Park (Bloomsbury)

It is December in Belfast, Christmas is approaching and three sets of people are about to make their way to Amsterdam. Alan, a university art teacher stands watching the grey sky blacken waiting for George Best’s funeral cortege to pass. He will go to Amsterdam to see Bob Dylan in concert but also in the aftermath of his divorce, in the hope that the city which once welcomed him as a young man and seemed to promise a better future, will reignite those sustaining memories. He doesn’t yet know that his troubled teenage son Jack will accompany his pilgrimage. Karen is a single mother struggling to make ends meet by working in a care home and cleaning city centre offices. She is determined to give her daughter the best wedding that she can. But as she boards the plane with her daughter’s hen party she will soon be shocked into questioning where her life of sacrifices has brought her. Meanwhile middle-aged couple, Marion and Richard are taking a break from running their garden centre to celebrate Marion’s birthday. In Amsterdam, Marion’s anxieties and insecurities about age, desire and motherhood come to the surface and lead her to make a decision that threatens to change the course of her marriage. As these people brush against each other in the squares, museums and parks of Amsterdam, their lives are transfigured as they encounter the complexities of love in a city that challenges what has gone before. Tender and humane, and elevating the ordinary to something timeless and important, The Light of Amsterdam is a novel of compassion and rare dignity.

Simon says: I was a little nonchalant about this one with Alan’s ‘situation’ but I then read about the other two and now rather fancy reading this.

This is Life by Dan Rhodes (Canongate)

This is Life is a missing baby mystery and an enchanted Parisian adventure. Hand in hand with lovable heroine Aurelie Renard, you will see life as you’ve never seen it before, discover the key to great art, witness the true cost of love, and learn how all these things may be controlled by the in-breath of a cormorant. Chock-full of charming characters and hilarious set-pieces this is a hugely enjoyable novel that will make you see life anew.

Simon says: The only book on the list by an author I have read before (and love, seriously he is brilliant) and I am thrilled that Dan is on the list, so as its one of the few of his I haven’t read already I will DEFINITELY be reading this one and probably within the next week or two. If you haven’t read him you must, ‘Gold’ has been my favourite (funny and heartbreaking) so far, I have high hopes for this.

So that is the list. What do you make of it and indeed the venture of Fiction Uncovered itself (the website is here)? Have you read any of these or anything else by the authors? I would love some further insight.

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