I love Patricia Highsmith. The first novel I read all those years ago was the one she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. That was a tremendous book and I subsequently went on to read the next two books in the ‘Ripliad’ – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game, both excellent, though I still rate the first book higher.

But Highmith also wrote non-Ripley books. And many of them are brilliant. The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary come to mind. And to this list, I will also add This Sweet Sickness.

‘For eliciting the menace that lurks in familiar surroundings, there’s no one like Patricia Highsmith.’ – an apt quote displayed in the opening pages of my Virago edition.

In This Sweet Sickness, we are in classic Highsmith territory. The opening paragraph immediately draws the reader into her dark, troubling world…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long 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 the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night.

The ‘Situation’ in a nutshell is like this – David Kelsey is deeply in love with Annabelle and at one point they even briefly courted. But a job change, promising a better pay, compelled David to move to another city. In the meanwhile, Annabelle married another man Gerald and set up home with him. David, therefore, is distraught and deeply jealous.

David is a chemical engineer at Cheswick Fabrics, very good at his job and also respected. On weekdays, he resides in a boarding house in Froudsburg run by the chatty and jovial Mrs McCartney. As far as the other boarders and Mrs McCartney are concerned, David is a model resident. He does not drink, does not entertain women late at night in his room, and visits his ailing mother in a nursing home without fail on weekends.

But nothing is as it seems in Highsmith’s universe. The reader soon realizes that there is something fishy about the last bit. David’s mother died ages ago. So, he spends his weekend, not in a nursing home, but in a house he has bought in Ballard, some miles from the boarding house in Froudsburg.

It’s his own home, cozy and comfortably furnished, a home he plans to settle in with Annabelle once she divorces Gerald. Because you see, David is dead sure of this happening. For him, the husband is just an inconvenience to be straightened out.

Life was very, very strange, but David Kelsey had an invincible conviction that life was going to work out all right for him.

But there’s more. When David is living in his house, he is no longer David Kelsey but rather William Neumeister. It’s the alias he used when he purchased the property too. It’s a secret existence and nobody in his life (not even Annabelle) know of his ‘other’ identity.

And sometimes, after the two martinis and a half bottle of wine at dinner, he imagined that he heard Annabelle call him Bill, and that made him smile, because when that happened, he’d gotten tangled up himself. In this house, his house, he liked to imagine himself – William Neumeister – a man who had everything he wanted, a man who knew how to live, to laugh, and to be happy.

There are other characters who get embroiled in David’s drama, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. There’s his best friend Wes Carmichael, also his colleague at work, who is stuck in a bitter, joyless marriage. And Effie Brennan, who also lodges at the same boarding house where David stays and is secretly in love with him.

David, meanwhile, continues to write to Annabelle, continuously expressing his wish to see her.

‘Dave, this business about your house – that’s why I’m calling. You don’t seem to understand when I write to you. I can’t ever come to your house, Dave, not the way you want me to come.’

‘Naturally, I was thinking – you’d finally get a divorce.’

Dave, I don’t want a divorce. Can’t you understand that?’

Listen, Annabelle, would you like me to come to Hartford? Right now?’

‘No, Dave, that’s why I’m calling. How can I say it? You’ve got to stop writing me, Dave. It’s just causing more and more trouble. Gerald’s fit to eb tied and I do mean that.’

‘I don’t give a damn about Gerald!’

‘But I do. I’ve got to. Just because you can’t understand—-‘

Things come to a head when one day Gerald turns up at David’s weekend home. How did he learn of David’s secret house? And how will their confrontation play out?

In This Sweet Sickness then, Highsmith is once again at her riveting best as she explores the themes of identity and dangerous obsession. It’s a novel with great psychological depth, a genre Highsmith clearly excels at. Can different identities really change at the core who you are? In what way does disturbing obsession make a person lose his touch with reality?

The focus on obsession brought to mind another brilliant novel I had read a few years ago – Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, although David Kelsey is neither really down on luck nor does he spend his days in seedy bars as Hamilton’s protagonist does.

I found shades of similarity with The Talented Mr Ripley too, in that both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley seamlessly live double lives even though their motives are different.

There was another maybe significant difference. One of Highsmith’s greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for the psychopath or the murderer. It happened with Tom Ripley. In a way, it also happened with Vic in Deep Water. Interestingly though, I didn’t feel the same with David Kelsey, although he was a fascinating enough creation.

That in no way suggests that the book is any lesser for it. It has all the trademarks of Highsmith’s writing – prose that is hypnotic and compulsively readable, the sense of palpable unease and creeping dread oozing from the pages, and characters so unhinged and enthralling that the reader is interested enough to find out how it will all turn out.

All in all, an excellent book. I intend to take a break before pulling another Highsmith from the shelves, but when I do it will be a toss between Strangers on A Train and The Blunderer.

2 thoughts on “This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

    1. It is a good one! The similarity with Hangover Square is more in terms of how both the books explore the theme of disturbing obsession. And yet, the women in question, Netta and Annabelle are as different as chalk and cheese.

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