Thursday, November 19, 2015

This Sweet Sickness, by Patricia Highsmith

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Patricia Highsmith’s 1961 psychological thriller, This Sweet Sickness, unfolds its dark tale with the fine precision of a Swiss watch.

David Kelsey is a smart young scientist. He works for a company that makes stain resistant fabrics. While his professional life is as decent and upstanding as you could imagine, his personal life is spiraling out of control. He’s literally a divided character. With echoes of The Importance of Being Earnest, David lives in a boarding house during the week, but on weekends retreats to his own house where he lives under the name of William Neumeister. It is in this secluded house that he entertains wild romantic fantasies, centred around an old love, Annabelle.

Annabelle married someone else while David was out of town for several months. The man she married, Gerald Delaney, David considers to be a dullard of the first order. What did she ever see in him? Refusing to see that his chance has irrevocably passed, David continues to pursue Annabelle, despite her increasing discomfort with his attentions. Understandably, Gerald Delaney, the husband, gets very fed up with David’s behaviour and tries to put an end to it. Then an unfortunate accident causes David to create a complicated, messy tangle of lies. He puts the blame for the accident on William Neumeister, his fake weekend identity, but that is a fabrication that is tricky to hold together. His life ends up becoming a desperate race to try and stop the truth from coming out. 

Books don’t come much more gripping than This Sweet Sickness. One has to admire Highsmith’s superb technical abilities. Each component of the story is so well put together, the events so exquisitely timed, the characters so realistically drawn, that from page to page you never know what’s going to happen next. Added to this is the book’s emotional truth. Highsmith taps into the dark, obsessive, self-deluding passions we are all capable of. It’s tempting to speculate how much David Kelsey is a self-portrait of Highsmith herself.

This Sweet Sickness, by Patricia Highsmith. Published by W.W. Norton and Company. ISBN: 9780393323672  $27.95

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