I discuss books quite a lot, on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook or sometimes on this blog - I guess they’re a way of life. My old Biology teacher from school (nicknamed ‘Charlie Biol’ a little unimaginatively) used to like to lecture us boys on the merits of reading, “Boys, if you have a good book, then you’re never without a friend!” He was absolutely right of course, and all my life I’ve kept my ‘friends’ close by. I mentioned reading the Ripley books to someone on Twitter, a self-confessed book addict, who said she’d enjoyed The Talented Mr Ripley but hadn’t got on with any of the others. However, she did express an interest in reading Strangers on a Train - Highsmith’s first novel. I proposed a ‘Buddy Read’. This is something I don’t normally have time for, not because I don’t enjoy them, but simply because I always have an alarming TBR pile. My wife decided to join us, so on 1 March (St David’s Day) we three arrived at Highsmith station and set off on our journey together!
What an astounding first novel! This book is sixty-five years old but remains to this day a considerably shocking edge of the seat read. And I don’t mean that it contains graphic violence or gripping action sequences - not at all. This book is a psychological novel that gets deep under the skin of its two main characters. We plough straight into the story from page one; we’re suddenly there, in the train compartment where our strangers meet. Believe me, what ensues is increasingly tense and quite unnerving. The compulsive way this novel is written makes the reader feel like they too are trapped, just like the book’s main protagonist Guy Haines, in an unceasing nightmare. As trains are driven along an irrevocably permanent track, we its readers, often squirming with anticipation, observe two increasingly desperate men reach their inevitable destinations. As in The Talented Mr Ripley, Strangers on a Train has a strongly understated homo-erotic element lurking just underneath the story’s surface. I’m assuming this would have made the book unpublishable in 1950 if it had been more overtly stated. If you like exceedingly well-written, utterly compulsive and rather disturbing psychological novels/thrillers, then I can highly recommend this one.
My ‘Buddy Read’ pals and I are now thinking about our next outing - it’ll probably be in the Autumn. The only criteria: a book previously unread by all; a book we all fancy reading! Just let me know if you’d like to join in!