Friday, July 29, 2011

Cry of the Owl / by Patricia Highsmith

Born Mary Patricia Plangman in Fort Worth, author Patricia Highsmith lived for much of her youth in New York City enduring the kind of emotionally unstable childhood which carries over into adulthood. Her parents divorced ten days after Highsmith was born and her mother, also named Mary, was someone Patricia would come to loathe, even penning a short story vaguely inferencing her murder. Though well-housed and cared for by her maternal grandmother, Highsmith never new her artist father and didn't get along with her stepfather. After graduating from Barnard with a degree in English, she scripted comic strips before becoming a full-time writer. Her debut novel Strangers On A Train was modest success upon its 1950 publication but became a blockbuster a year later with the release of Alfred Hitchcock's movie adaptation. Her newfound stardom allowed Highsmith to travel extensively in Europe throughout the 1950's and she permanently relocated to Switzerland in 1963. Though a well-published writer throughout her career, highly praised by all critics as a gifted psychological storyteller with a knack for portraying misfit protagonist and a skill as much for the macabre as satire, Patricia Highsmith was, by most accounts, a tortured soul. Difficult to be with, live with and work with, she's known as much for her cantankerousness and reclusive habits as for her literary achievements. Her 1962 book Cry of the Owl is a strange, disturbing tale of a recently divorced man's compulsion towards a voyeuristic relationship with his much younger neighbor.

"Want a nice piece of firewood as a bludgeon or something?"

In the small Pennsylvania town of Langley, Robert Forrester lives alone after having been through a particularly nasty divorce. Though his job as an aerospace engineer keeps him going, it's not enough to help recuperate him psychologically and leaves him restless most of the time. Driving home one night he spots a beguiling young woman outside her home. Drawn by her attractive features and placid demeanor, Robert begins to watch her nightly through her kitchen window from the relative safety of the nearby woods. When he's caught one night, the girl, Jenny Thierolf, is surprisingly friendly to him, accommodating his clumsy excuses and asking him inside. When her fiance Greg arrives, Robert politely excuses himself believing the dalliance to be over. But it isn't. Robert finds that he can't keep himself away. More peculiarly, Jenny seems to accessible to the idea of being close friends with Robert, even to the point of breaking off her engagement to Greg. Unsure of what to do, Robert finds himself confused and panicking, a condition leading ever more deeper into treacherous circumstances.

Highsmith wrote a lot of books, many along the same creepy lines as this one. There's a sense of familiarity about her characters which you don't get with other similar works of fiction, a connection to the deeper nature which can be a bit unsettling. To say that Cry of the Owl is a suspense would be correct but it's also something of an experimental piece, a novel about people, all of them a little creepy, who aren't so concerned with the moral compass in life as they are with the pathology of their own individual choices. French New Wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol made the first movie of the novel in 1967 and in 2009, a new adaptation starring Julia Stiles and Paddy Considine was released. Neither film really quite captures the eerie-ness factor which Highsmith was able to manifest with her cleverly plotted style. It wouldn't be to far off to say that the author herself more than resonated with these characters. She had enough of her own personally hindering psychosis, a reason her books were so strikingly brilliant and successful. Highsmith was named the greatest crime novelist of all time by The Times (UK) in 2008. (MYS HIGHSMIT)

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