Nothing That Meets The Eye
Patricia Highsmith

Bloomsbury, 2005
first collection? No

Patricia Highsmith was born in Texas, USA in 1921 and raised first by her maternal grandmother in New York City and later by her mother and stepfather, who were both commercial artists. Best known for her psychological thrillers, including Strangers on a Train and the Ripley series, Highsmith also wrote many short stories. She died in Switzerland in 1995.

"What were they talking about? How they must hate the bench arm between them! And she felt a taut, righteous satisfaction that the iron bar was between them. What would the park be like without the iron arms? Men sleeping along benches. Couples…"

Reviewed by Sarah Hilary

There’s a wicked pleasure to be had from reading Patricia Highsmith’s short stories, a pricking of the thumbs as you turn the page, waiting to find out what will happen to the demure spinsters and disappointed men of early middle age. Highsmith takes trouble to construct the details of their domestic lives, cutting her cloth with confident, convincing slices of the scissors, but the reader senses a fraying-at-the-edges almost as soon as the stories begin. Something is amiss, the people here are balanced too precariously at the edges of their lives, a little snip here and there and they will fall. The interest lies in watching which way they tumble and how hard they fight to keep that awkward balance.

Once or twice, Highsmith tips her own balance from cool economy towards sadism, in the fate to which she delivers her heroes and heroines. We sense, for instance, in The Second Cigarette, that she despises the dull, fleshy George who’s haunted by visions of his other self to the point of a pantomime-suicide. In The Mightiest Mornings, the earliest story in the collection, Aaron is escaping, trying for a new start in a small town where he isn’t known (a recurrent theme in Highsmith’s writing). He falls in with a skinny barefoot child, Freya, and briefly feels happy before the town’s disapproval drives him away. Whether or not Highsmith was inviting the reader to judge Aaron on his weakness in wanting the town’s approbation or his failure to stay in one place and get on with the messy business of living – we do judge him, and we find him wanting.

When Highsmith tells a similar story from the perspective of the child, the results are far more satisfying. A Mighty Nice Man is a terrifically clever and disturbing story about a stranger who arrives in a dusty town where two small sisters are so bored they beg for his attention. The stranger lures the boldest child away and it isn’t until they’re in his car that she starts to sense his predatory sexual interest in her. Highsmith has a final twist up her sleeve. The girls’ mother is as bored and penniless as her children and wistfully invites the stranger to take them all driving whenever he wants. This time it is the sanction which drives the man away, in sharp contrast to Aaron from the earlier story. Our attention switches from the stranger to the family left behind, opening up a whole new level of nightmare.

There are quieter stories here, but it is rare to find one in which a monster of some description does not lurk. The Trouble with Mrs Blynn, the Trouble with the World is a sensitively told story of a woman dying without, she thinks, too many regrets. We are struck at the outset with the sense that she is at peace with her fate. Mrs Blynn, the attending nurse who brings the pain relief, has her eye on the woman’s amethyst brooch and slyly prompts her patient to roll-call regrets we thought she didn’t have. Mrs Blynn is a formidable example of Highsmith’s control over character and her power to manipulate the reader’s emotions in many directions at once. There is a deliciously poisonous irony too, in the fact of Mrs Blynn being the one with the pain relief, coldly sedating the heroine as she lowers the last of the woman’s defences. Highsmith does not deal in palliatives. Her stories, even the amusing ones, are hard lessons in life’s disappointments, its darkness and its depths.

A last word about the title story in the collection, Nothing that Meets the Eye. Helene, a quite ordinary woman of a forty-five, finds herself besieged by suitors at a Swiss resort. Offers of marriage, jealous lovers and baffled wives all flock to her door. At first she blames the altitude, but when it dawns on Helene that her allure is her lack of need for the company of others, she takes drastic action. "All these people want me only because I don’t need them any longer… It’s ironic, but perfectly human, after all. They think I won’t take anything from them, and they’re right."

"Perfectly human", in this story, seems another way of saying monstrous. This is Highsmith’s greatest skill: skewing our perspective, not by much but enough for us to see the monster under the smoothly-made bed.

Sarah Hilary is an award-winning writer whose fiction appears in Smokelong Quarterly, The Fish Anthology 2008, LITnIMAGE, The Best of Every Day Fiction, and in the Crime Writers’ Association anthology,  MO: Crimes of Practice. A column about the wartime experiences of her mother, who was a child internee of the Japanese, was published in the Spring 09 edition of Foto8 magazine.

Sarah's other Short Reviews: Katherine Mansfield "The Collected Stories"   

Muriel Spark "The Complete Short Stories"   

"I.D. Crimes of Identity" anthology

Susan DiPlacido "American Cool" 

Sophie Hannah "The Fantastic Book of Everybody's Secrets"

Benjamin Percy "Refresh, Refresh"

Chavisa Woods "Love Does Not Make me Gentle or Kind"

Jennifer Pelland "Unwelcome Bodies"

Laura Solomon "Alternative Medicine"
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