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A creepy, violent, witty tale of a marriage gone feral

I’m very fond of the dark precision of Patricia Highsmith’s writing, and particularly appreciate the discomfort she causes for her readers, in the character of Tom Ripley. Ripley is an amoral man, in fact, quite evil, but possessed of such charm that the reader, shamefully, wants the horrific man to succeed in his casually violent endeavours

Deep Water, originally published in ’57, after the first Ripley, but well before later outings, is a stand alone novel, a portrait of a chillingly dysfunctional marriage. Under the lens of Highsmith’s acerbic, mordant, cynical eye it is both addictively, compulsively tension building, extremely nasty …and very funny. Whilst neither protagonist – husband Vic, weirdly obsessive compulsive, wife Melinda, aggressive drunk, sexually voracious and irresistible to anyone she sets her sights on, despite her deep unpleasantness – is the kind of person with the flexibility, generosity of spirit or interest in ‘other’ to stand much of a chance to make a healthy relationship with anyone, their individual flaws create a nuclear wasteland of destructive fallout, once brought into contact with each other.

Highsmith sets her theatre of marital war in American Dream small town suburbia, a scene of neighbourliness, polite parties, small professional businesses and vaguely arty interests. Vic, whose main enthusiasm is for the rearing and studying of snails (!), is the owner of an independent publishing company, producing high quality niche work, beautifully presented, local history, poetry imprints and the like. He is very well liked by most of the long-term small-town residents, as though he is of a somewhat introspective disposition, he is helpful and community minded. The local community takes care of its own, and is a little parochial, not taking that kindly to incomers.

Melinda is viewed with less favour. Most of Vic’s friends are aware that Melinda likes incomers a lot – or at least, MALE incomers. Rather too much, in fact. Something she makes no effort to hide. Instead she flaunts her come-hither, blowsy seductiveness in public. Part of the pleasure she gets from this, is the public humiliation of her husband, the fact that everyone is pretty aware that Vic is cuckolded, again and again.

What puzzles and discomfits the community is the fact that Vic never challenges the lovers, nor appears to be jealous, or disturbed by his wife’s loud, rather crude flaunting of herself.

One of Melinda’s earlier public affairs was with a man, now returned to New York, who has been mysteriously murdered, perpetrator and motive unknown.

Seeing a chance to unsettle any future paramours Melinda might set her sights on, Vic tells one prospective lover that HE had been the man’s murderer, setting in train a series of deliciously dark, distastefully funny acts of Highsmithian violence and impending violence

Although neither Vic nor Melinda are the kind of characters to excite the reader’s empathy, disturbed, disturbing Vic is the one most readers will engage with, and even, with some discomfort, root for. Melinda is just too unpleasant, too competitive and dismissive of other women, too careless of her daughter’s happiness or wellbeing. Vic, whatever his rather cold fish, creepy weirdness, is liked, and is actually a kind man, especially towards those less well placed in society. His particular selfishness and self-obsession is really only problematic within his marriage. He could perhaps have made a ‘good enough’ partnership with someone else. It is unfortunate that he is a man of extremely low sexual drive, married to a woman whose libido is extremely high

…he had waited for fear to come, for panic, for guilt, regret at least….He had found himself thinking of a pleasant day in his childhood when he had won a prize in geography class for making the best model of an Eskimo igloo village using half eggshells for igloos and spun glass for snow. Without consciously realizing it he had felt absolutely secure. Secure from detection….He had such slow reactions to everything. Physical danger. Emotional blows. Sometimes his reactions were weeks late, so that he had a hard time attaching them to their causes.

I was steered towards this satisfying psychological thriller by Jacqui from Jacquiwine, who recommended this highly, and thought I would like it a lot. And she was right

…and as for American Pie, well, there are some odd resonances so that the song bobbed up, occasionally, in my consciousness, as I was thinking about the framing of my review….

IF you go on to read the book, or HAVE read it, maybe those resonances will have you nodding in recognition too

Finally…..much fun and queasy stuff goes on around Vic’s fascination with snails, and some of the marital discord too (I had my sympathies, a little, with Melinda here) I DID think of including a clip, even a video, of snails mating. Perhaps readers will be grateful that, feeling queasy after viewing, I desisted! Sorry, those of you enchanted by gastropods……..

Deep Water UK
Deep Water USA