I read and enjoyed a couple of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley books quite some years ago, and it has taken me until almost a decade later to seek out more of her rather large oeuvre. Edith’s Diary, a psychological crime story, was the first full-length novel not featuring Mr Ripley which I chose to read. The Virago edition, which was republished along with several other Highsmith titles, has an introduction by crime writer Denise Mina, which I found to be measured and quite insightful.
Since its publication in 1977, the novel has been highly praised. The Times calls Edith’s Diary ‘masterly… haunting… a book that lingers in the memory and constantly disturbs and delights.’ The New Yorker believes it to be ‘a work of extraordinary force and feeling… her strongest, her most imaginative and by far her most substantial novel.’ Writer A.N. Wilson says: ‘Edith’s Diary is certainly one of the saddest novels I ever read, but it is also one of the mere twenty or so that I would say were perfect, unimprovable masterpieces.’
In her introduction, Mina notes: ‘Regardless of genre or form, it is touching on truth that gives writing well weight and profundity. Patricia Highsmith is a great writer. Her truths are not always comfortable. They’re not easy to own, but we know them when we read them. We might flinch at what she points out, but we can’t dent it. Truth not only makes fiction more believable, it is what makes reading potentially life-changing.’
At the beginning of the novel, protagonist Edith Howland is moving from her New York apartment to a house in the suburbs in Brunswick, Pennsylvania, with her husband Brett and ten-year-old son Cliffie. Highsmith is perceptive of the effect which this upheaval has on their psychopathic son: ‘The move was real, not something he had imagined… Cliffie often imagined much more violent things, like a bomb going off under their apartment building, even under all of New York, the whole city going up sky-high with no survivors. But suddenly this, their moving to another state, was somehow like a real bomb going off under his own feet.’ As soon as they have moved, Cliffie tries to smother the family’s cat beneath the bedspread, the first incident of many in which the reader recoils from him. Edith is very well informed politically, and has such an awareness of what is going on in the world around her, but her son’s behaviour, and his unwillingness to do anything, leaves her baffled.
The novel begins in 1955, and spans many years. A couple of months after the family has settled into their new house, Brett’s uncle, a rather cantankerous old man named George, comes to stay with them. It is around this time that Edith recognises she feels upset for ‘a few hours at a time’, with no real reason as to why. She begins to record untruths in her diary, which is almost like a character in its own right in the novel. After Cliffie is thrown out of his college entrance exams for trying to cheat, for example, Edith records that night that ‘he thinks he did pretty well… If he gets an 80 average, he’ll go to – maybe Princeton.’ Immediately following this, she acknowledges her fictional entry to herself: ‘The entry was a lie. But after all who was going to see it? And she felt better, having written it, felt less melancholic, almost cheerful, in fact.’ Edith does not keep her diary regularly, and has written in it sporadically since she was a very young woman. She tends to note only when a moment of crisis has occurred, or something which she wishes to remember. The untruths become more frequent; worried by her son’s path in life, she invents a fiancee, and then a daughter, for him in her diary.
Time moves quickly in this novel, and often, several years have passed from one chapter to the next. Edith’s home life begins to crumble, and many problems beset her. Edith’s Diary is a great example of domestic noir. The third person perspective which has been used throughout focuses primarily upon Edith, but also explores the private lives of her husband and son. Edith’s Diary is not quite what I was expecting; I thought that the entirety would be told using diary extracts, but actually, relatively little is expressed in Edith’s own words.
The prose in the novel does tend to be a little matter-of-fact, and there is very little writing here which could be termed as beautiful. That is, however, precisely the point. The building of tension is apparent from almost the very beginning, and is well handled. Edith’s Diary was not as chilling as I was expecting it to be, but I found the character development believable. The novel has definitely left me eager to read more of Highsmith’s work.