Friday 28 September 2018

Forgotten Book - Edith's Diary

It's safe to say that Edith's Diary is one of Patricia Highsmith's less renowned books. It was first published in 1977, at a time when her powers as a crime novelist were, perhaps waning. Indeed, her usual American publishers rejected it, which must have come as a huge blow. But there are some critics who rank it with her finest work, and having come to it belatedly, I'm tempted to agree. It far exceeded my expectations, in fact.

I suppose the first question is this: is Edith's Diary a crime novel at all? One of the characters commits a number of crimes, almost certainly including a murder, but these are not the main focus of the story. And my answer to the question is: I think it can be described as a crime novel, but it really doesn't matter. I don't think it's terribly helpful to get hung up on definitions of what does and does not constitute a crime story. Some stories, naturally enough, occupy the borderlands between crime and mainstream fiction, and worrying about how to pigeon-hole them is a distraction .What counts is the quality of the story.

For me, Edith's Diary was a revelation in more ways than one. I knew that the title character, Edith Howland, kept a diary that becomes increasingly a means of living out a fantasy life divorced from reality, and this is an idea which strikes me as tremendously powerful and appealing. But even the diary is not the main focus of the story. Rather, the key is Highsmith's lucid but rather terrible depiction of a disintegrating life.

Edith's descent is charted over a long time span, with many political references which give the story a dated feel. She's a left-wing progressive, a minor writer and journalist who is married to an apparently (but perhaps not actually) decent man, and they have one child, the lazy, slobbish, hard-drinking Cliffie. The family is completed by her husband's equally idle uncle, whose continuing presence in the household Edith tolerates for reasons that aren't easy to understand. We sympathise with her, but Highsmith is relentless in probing her many weaknesses. The result is a novel that, for all its touches of wry humour, is bleak but memorable. 


J F Norris said...

Extremely depressing book. This is the only Highsmith novel I never finished.

Martin Edwards said...

Interesting reaction, John. My hopes for it weren't high, but I found the writing really impressive, and though the book wasn't what I rather expected, I felt that was a good thing.