The poem "The Owl" by British Poet Edward Thomas deals with the after effects of a soldier escaping the horrors of the front lines of war, with his life. However, many of his fellow soldiers have not escaped. They have paid the ultimate sacrifice – giving their lives for their fellow brothers-in-arms who could escape, and also giving their lives for their country and fellow citizens.
The solider who is the narrator of this poem talks of a ‘blessed tiredness’ so-to-speak. He is tired from battle, but the rest he can now partake of is to him “…the sweetest thing under a roof.”
This soldier is cold and hungry but he has persevered somehow. Nonetheless, there is a cost to his surviving in that mental anguish over the fate of his compatriots is something that will eat at him for the rest of his life. He now enjoys creature comforts at an inn and all seems well; he has survived; he can make plans for the future, hopefully a brighter one for him and for all.
What catches his attention is the lamenting cry of a lone owl. It is as if the owl is speaking directly to him. It is a direct cry to this soldier, “long and clear upon the hill.” The owl is letting him know that he is one of the fortunate ones in the theatre of war. He escaped when other could not. This soldier has loved ones and a previous lifestyle to return to. The soldiers who died have left this all behind and their blood soaks gruesome battlefields.
The owl’s cry has awaken him to the reality of his situation. He is a survivor and can rejoice somewhat that his life carries on, albeit significantly changed. The plaintive cry from the owl reminds him that many soldiers cannot express joy now, nor can their loved ones.
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The Cry of the Owl by Patricia Highsmith (Heinemann, 1963); First Edition, John Bance Cover, Review
This week, as promised, I'll be blogging exclusively about mistress of suspense Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith isn't a new discovery for me; I've been reading her novels for years and many of them remain among my favourite books, in particular the five starring the man with no conscience, Tom Ripley (especially 1974's Ripley's Game). Graham Greene called Highsmith "the poet of apprehension", but that pithy epithet only goes so far towards explaining the appeal of her stories. In a way, it's easiest to define them by what they aren't. They're not whodunnits or murder mysteries, although they frequently feature murders; they're not police procedurals, although policemen do appear, and have crimes to solve; they're not courtroom dramas or hard-boiled thrillers, although the law, at least in a moral sense, is an abiding concern, and there is violence in the books, sometimes explicit and shocking.
What they are, are psychological explorations of the darker side of the human condition. Often Highsmith's novels will focus on two protagonists – usually male – who become inexplicably fascinated by one another. This fascination frequently has homosexual undercurrents (Highsmith herself was gay) and invariably leads to a death, or multiple deaths. It's a structure established right from the very beginning of her novel-writing career, with Strangers on a Train (1950), and one she would return to again and again for the rest of her life, although usually with a fresh twist each time.
This week I'll be blogging about some of my recent(ish) Highsmith acquisitions, identifying and exploring the themes that weave through her stories and delving into the publishing history behind the books. But I'll also be looking back at some first editions I bought a while ago but never got round to writing about – which is the case with the first two books I have to show, both of which hail from the early 1960s, both of which boast distinctive John Bance dustjackets, and both of which I bought on my very first visit to the Lewes Book Fair, getting on for three years ago. And the first of those is this:
The UK hardback first edition of The Cry of the Owl, published by Heinemann in 1963 – originally published in the US by Harper in 1962 (the cover to which on the novel's Wikipedia page is actually taken from one of my own blog posts – and it's not the only one, either). Highsmith's eighth novel, it features Robert Forester, a recently divorced man working for an aeronautics company in Pennsylvania who has a parallel life as a Peeping Tom. Forester becomes fixated on a secluded house in a wood, finding a kind of peace by spying on the calming domesticity of its occupant, Jenny Thierolf. But matters become complicated when Jenny spots Robert one night, and unexpectedly invites him into her home. And when Jenny's boyfriend, Greg, gets wind of this blossoming relationship and makes contact with Robert's embittered ex-wife, Nickie, the stage is set for a tale of escalating obsession and violence.
In some ways, The Cry of the Owl marks a slight shift in Highsmith's approach, in that the infatuation at the heart of the novel is between a man and a woman (although Greg's fixation on Robert is as tangible as in any other of Highsmith's works). Certainly the fact that the relationship between Robert and Jenny is unambiguously romantic – although cool and reserved on Robert's side and highly strung on Jenny's – and that the theme of voyeurism, another constant in Highsmith's books, is front and centre, for me lent the story an added poignancy. Obviously I can't speak for anyone else, but the urge to spy and stalk is something I can relate to, having gone through a regrettable phase of that myself in the aftermath of a relationship when I was a lot younger. I think that's partly why the novel made such an impact on me, but even without that added resonance, The Cry of the Owl is a powerful piece of fiction, by turns queasy, gripping and ultimately crushing.
Indeed, I'd go so far as to say The Cry of the Owl is one of Highsmith's best novels. But while the next book I'll be looking at – and the next novel Highsmith had published – 1964's The Two Faces of January, doesn't quite reach those heights, it does still have it merits, and in its choice of location – i.e. Europe – offers an insight into another of Highsmith's preoccupations, both in her fiction and in her own life.