A Suspension of Mercy by Patricia Highsmith (1972)

I hadn’t read Patricia Highsmith for years, but when she was added to the Virago list I realised that there was more to her backlist than I had realised, and that it really was time I did a little more reading.

This book was the one that caught my eye in the library catalogue  – I liked the cover and I liked the title – and now that I’ve read it I have to say that it isn’t her best work but it was a lovely reminder of how good, how dark and how intriguing she can be.

Sidney Smith Bartleby is an American writer who has been blessed – or maybe cursed – with an exceptionally active imagination, and yet he has found little success

He married an English girl after a very short acquaintance, because he didn’t want her to go home without him, and so he went home with her. They settled in a remote cottage in Suffolk, with the idea in mind that the quiet countryside would be the perfect place for them to develop their artistic talents and their respective careers.

Neither the marriage nor the new home could be considered a success.

Alicia spends her time painting without any concern about where money is going to come from or any need to think about selling her work. She is the much loved only child of wealthy parents, they made a substantial contribution towards the purchase of the cottage, and she has a small private income at her disposal.

She was unimpressed by Sydney’s failure to find a publisher for his new novel, and she didn’t believe that the screenplays he wrote with a collaborator, Alex who had a steady income from a London publishing job, would be any more successful.

The whole situation was unhappy. Her waspishness and his uneven temper, isolation broken only when friends from London visited, a lack of anything much to do at other times, had left their marriage close to breaking point.

Sydney and Alicia were both rather pleased when Mrs Lilybanks, an elderly widow with a heart condition, moved into the only nearby house that had stood empty for quite some time. The new neighbours got on very well, but it wasn’t long before Mrs Lilybanks realised that the Bartlebys weren’t at all happy with each other.

Alicia coped by taking short holidays without her husband, and it wasn’t long until the day came when she didn’t come back.

Sydney wasn’t too worried because it gave him more time to work on his novel and he was working on ideas for a new televison crime drama that both he and Alex thought was a sure fire success.

His ideas for new episodes of his crime series began to get mixed up with his fantasies of killing his wife, and the line between fact and fiction began to blur.

‘Sometimes he plotted the murders, the robbery, the blackmail of people he and Alicia knew, though the people themselves knew nothing about it. Alex had died five times at least in Sydney’s imagination. Alicia twenty times. She had died in a burning car, in a wrecked car, in the woods throttled by person or persons unknown, died falling down the stairs at home, drowned in her bath, died falling out the upstairs window while trying to rescue a bird in the eaves drain, died from poisoning that would leave no trace. But the best way for him, was her dying by a blow in the house, and he removed her somewhere in the car, buried her somewhere, then told everyone that she had gone away for a few days, maybe to Brighton, maybe to London.’

Sydney recorded some of his murderous ideas in his journal, and he even bought a new rug so that he could use the old one to test his plan for secretly burying the body!

It was unlucky that Mrs Lilybanks was looking out of her window on the evening that Sidney decided to put his theory to the test

It was understandable that when Sidney couldn’t say where his wife had gone and when she didn’t receive the letter that Alicia had promised she felt that something must be terribly wrong and she should raise the alarm.

It was extremely unfortunate that her poor, weak heart was put under so much strain …

Sidney didn’t notice, because his crime series had been commissioned and he was completely caught up in scenarios that were becoming more and more elaborate and fantastical.

The set-up of this story was so good. The writing was clear and lucid, the plot was cleverly constructed, and I wasn’t quite sure what was real and what was fantasy, or just where the story might be going.

When Patricia Highsmith revealed a little more of Alicia’s story the book lost something. I wasn’t convinced that she would have acted as she did, unless there was an awful lot of backstory that hadn’t been told; and I wasn’t convinced that, faced with a murder charge, Sydney would have acted as he did, however caught up in his writing he was.

The interesting characters I had met began to seem more like plot devices.

The different responses of Mrs Lilybanks and Alex rang true, and so did the way that the net began to close around Sidney.

The plot moved inexorably on, I had to keep turning the pages, until I reached a startling ending that made me think again about what had gone before.

There was three-quarters of a really good book here; not Patricia Highsmith at her best, but more than enough to remind we of how very good she can be and make me want to read more of her work.

A Book for Margery Sharp Day: The Innocents (1972)

I have loved many of Margery Sharp’s books for many different reasons and, though I could argue with myself for a long time over the question, I think that if I had to pick just one favourite, one book to take with me to a desert island, it would be ‘The Innocents’.

I read it twice and each time I didn’t write about it, because I wasn’t sure that I could find the words to do it justice. And now I’ve read it for a third time, and I know that I must start to write, because this book is so special and I have to share it with others.

It’s a later work, it’s a quieter and simpler work than many of her others, and it speaks so profoundly.

the-innocents-margery-sharp-001The story is told by a middle-aged – almost elderly spinster living in a quiet country village. She had lived there all her life, first as the only child of the vicarage, and then as a lady of independent means. She was content with her life and with her position in village society; not at the forefront but always with a role to play.

Margery Sharp drew her character so well, and all of the characters who had parts to play in the story she has to tell. She had the ability to draw a real, living, breathing person with just a few lines, and in this case an account of a particular village fete. I can’t explain them nearly so well and so I shan’t even try. You need to read this book, and somebody needs to reissue it, please.

What she didn’t do was tell me her narrator’s name, and so I must continue to refer to her as ‘she’.

She recalled a visit from friends in the summer of 1939. A younger friend, who had been the belle of the village, had a whirlwind romance with an older Scottish businessman and they had settled in the USA. They had come home for business reasons, with their infant daughter in tow, and they had plans to tour continental Europe before they travelled back across the Atlantic. They realised that it had been a mistake to bring a young child without her nanny, and they wondered if could leave her, safe in the care of their older friend, while they holidayed.

She was pleased to say yes, she was quite taken with the child, and arrangements were quickly put into place.

She had already recognised what the parents had left unsaid: the child – Antoinette – Toni – had learning difficulties, or, in her own preferred terminology, she was ‘an innocent.’

This was when the story really struck a chord with me; because I had a brother who was ‘an innocent’. And that is why it means a great deal for me to say that everything rang true, that it was emotionally honest without ever being sentimental, and that ….

It made me think of many of the lovely people I met who were involved in my brother’s care, and it made me think of my mother and wish that I had discovered that book when my mother would have still been able to read it.

Now, back to the story.

Toni was blessed with a guardian who took such good care of her. She borrowed a basket of tabby kittens in case a distraction was needed when the parents left; it wasn’t, but Toni loved them anyway. She borrowed a cot from the WI and she took great care to understand what made her charge happy. What she loved was to spend her days wandering in the garden, to come into the house to eat when she was hungry, and to sleep securely in her cot at night. And so that was what happened.

A lovely understanding grew between the two. Toni had only a small number of words, and she used them to express herself rather than applying their conventional meaning; but of course true understanding doesn’t need words.

This arrangement lasted for much longer than had been originally planned. Because Britain declared war on Germany before that holiday was over, and an anxious employer arranged flights back to the USA, post haste. There was no time to collect Toni, and so she stayed just where she was until the war was over.

Her guardian learned, as more arrangements were put in place, that Toni’s father understood her condition and its implications,  that he was anxious to do whatever was best for her; and that her mother did not, that she thought that counselling and speech therapy would transform Toni into the model daughter to follow her into society.

Toni’s father died just before the end of the war, and her mother arrived to take her home. She didn’t understand her child; she could not – or maybe would not – Margery Sharp is far to clever a writer to let me decide which, but she made me care so much.

The way that the story played out then was heart-rending. The guardian persuaded the mother to stay a while, to help the child’s transition; she wished to do more but she knew she could not; The child was unhappy, she tried to cling to the secure world she knew and loved, but it was clear that at some level she knew that she could; and the mother’s presence, living in a world where she no longer really belonged, sent ripples through the village community.

The conclusion is dramatic, and it could be interpreted in more than one way. I can’t quite decide; but I can tell you that thinking about it brings a lump to my throat.

Margery Sharp was such a perceptive writer; she understood all of her characters so well, and she knew that there were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings, some wiser than others.

Even though I knew this story it held me, it had my heart rising and falling, from the first page to the last.

I can’t do it justice, but I can say that it really is a gem.

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MargeryNow, please do tell me if you’ve read a book for Margery Sharp Day. I’ll post a round up once the day is done.

And please don’t worry if you haven’t – Margery Sharp posts are welcome on any day of the year!