THE CRY OF THE OWL by Patricia Highsmith

Book Quote:

“I have the definite feeling if everybody in the world didn’t keep watching to see what everybody else did, we’d all go berserk.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage (JUL 21, 2011)

American author, Patricia Highsmith, who died in 1995, left behind a respectable body of work. Highsmith is known primarily for her psychological thrillers, so perhaps it’s not too surprising that a number of her novels have been adapted for the big screen–including The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley’s Game, Ripley Underground, The Cry of the Owl and This Sweet Sickness. Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers on a Train, was made into a film directed by Alfred Hitchcock–a man with an uncanny ability to spot new talent. While Strangers on a Train is my all-time favourite Hitchcock film, it veers away from the darkest corners of Highsmith’s tale. I like to think that even Hitchcock wasn’t ready to wrestle with some of Highsmith’s controversial and insidiously buried themes.

Highsmith is a criminally underrated writer. While her talents are recognized repeatedly by the film industry, she is not as widely read as she deserves to be. During Highsmith’s lifetime she won a number of awards, but those awards are largely granted to mystery novels, and mystery and crime novels aren’t considered on the same playing field as so-called literary fiction. In 2011, Grove Press championed Patricia Highsmith by declaring the re-release of nine of Highsmith’s books, and that brings me to the sinister, moody psychological novel, The Cry of the Owl.

The Cry of the Owl is set in a small Pennsylvania town, and the story begins with quiet, introverted engineer Robert Forrester leaving work one night. Mentally shattered from a recent vicious divorce, feeling lonely, sad and depressed, Forrester has developed a habit of stopping at an isolated country house and watching a pretty young woman as she moves through her mundane, domestic tasks. This isn’t exactly peeping tom stuff as Forrester isn’t interested in catching the girl nude or even watching the girl with her fiancé, Greg. Instead it’s as though watching the girl provides Forrester with some sort of reassurance that decency and normalcy exist somewhere in the world. Forrester thinks this is fairly harmless stuff–although to get a better look he must leave his car, creep up to the house, and watch the girl in the dark. Each time he promises himself that it will be his last, but he always returns, inexplicably drawn to the picture of domestic simplicity and harmony.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. Perhaps Forrester intended it to happen. One night, the girl, bank teller, Jenny Thierolf, spots Forrester in the gloom. We’d expect her to scream, run away and call the police. But she doesn’t. Instead she invites Forrester in:

“He stared at her in an unbelieving way, at her soft hair so close to him now, only six feet away, at her gray eyes—they had flecks of blue in them. Here. So near he could touch them, were the white curtains he had seen her put up, the oven door he had seen her so often bend to open. And something else struck him: his pleasure or satisfaction in seeing her more closely now was no greater than when he looked at her through the window, and he foresaw that getting to know her even slightly would be to diminish her and what she stood for to him—happiness and calmness and the absence of any kind of strain.”

From this point on, a dreadful atmosphere of growing menace lurks over the story as its damaged, emotionally disturbed characters interact and form dangerous, obsessive relationships. Right after the dreamy, moody Jenny enters Forrester’s life, his ex-wife, the toxic, psychotic man-eater Nickie begins pestering him with intrusive phone calls. Tormenting men is a favourite sick game for Nickie, and she’s not about to give up the sport of hounding Forrester–even though she has fresh meat at home in the form of a new pliable, rich husband. Jenny’s boyfriend, Greg, a pharmaceutical salesman with broken relationships in his past doesn’t appreciate Forrester’s presence in his fiancée’s life, and these four characters: Jenny, Greg, Nickie and Forrester find themselves emotionally tangled on a collision course with death. There’s the sense that the events that occur are unique and could only occur in this fatal cocktail, stirred by a death obsession, dependant personalities, and fueled by violent jealousy.

This is a Highsmith tour-de-force–a must read for those who’ve tested Highsmith territory with the Ripley novels. The Cry of The Owl moves with precision skill to its stunning conclusion even as it explores the inherent dangers of crossing the boundary between fantasy and reality, the repressive horror of small town living, and the monstrosity of society’s collective judgment.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-3-5from 19 readers
PUBLISHER: Grove Press; Reissue edition (July 12, 2011)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Patricia Highsmith
EXTRAS: Guy Savage review of Eleven
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our review of:


Ripley Novels:

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July 21, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2011 Favorites, Classic, Mystery/Suspense

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