“Carol” by Patricia Highsmith

(‘Carol’ by Patricia Highsmith (1952/2007), Bloomsbury Publishing)

But there was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol.

This is an intense, brilliant and beautiful book. The intensity is subtle, however, you easily get caught by the book, it’s difficult to put down, although it may seem at times not much is happening, and yet, between Carol and Therese things always seem to be moving, to be negotiated and worked out. They’re always in motion, always on a collision course towards each other. When I think back on it now, I’m almost surprised to find so much actually happened when so little seemed to happen. It’s a novel that moves quickly and slowly all at once.

Therese meets Carol at her work place and it’s love at first sight. Well, in a way. It’s the sort of love that exists at first sight even before you know it’s love you’re looking at. Therese falls in love with Carol, but doesn’t seem to truly know it for a while. Some of the novels intensity absolutely derives from the fact that this love between them is a discovery, a slow, careful, desperate uncovering.

They end up going on a road trip together. A road trip that gives and takes so much from both of them. Carol, to Therese and to us (in the form of this book), is a tidal wave. She comes suddenly and changes everything. The landscape of Therese’s life will never be the same.

It’s a romance, of course, but not the sort you might expect. It’s intense, bordering on gloomy, but elegant and wonderful all the same, it’s constantly switching between love and anxiety. See, it’s a romance, but the impossibility of it, the improbability, the odds against it, make it so much more than that. At times I had a hard time seeing the love between the two women, but that’s intentional, I think. It’s not always obvious how or why or sometimes even if they really love each other; you have to read between the lines. Just as Carol and Therese are forced to hide their love, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, so are the signs of that love not always spelled out on the page. You look for it in a gesture, a word, a silence. You find it in the space between the two of them and what they share. Sometimes you find it exactly where you expect to. And yet it’s always clear that love is there, it’s just that love is complicated.

The prose is beautiful and fitting, I was very struck by it. It’s exquisite and overwhelming. As elegant as the world and time they find themselves in. For this only, I think the book is worth giving a try. There were whole paragraphs that took my breath away, like this one:

January. It was all things. And it was one thing, like a solid door. Its cold sealed the city in a gray capsule. January was moments, and January was a year. January rained the moments down, and froze them in her memory […]. Every human action seemed to yield a magic. January was a two-faced month, jangling like jester’s bells, crackling like snow crust, pure as any beginning, grim as an old man, mysteriously familiar yet unknown, like a word one can almost but not quite define.

You can lose yourself in the words, find yourself as submersed and caught up in Carol as Therese is. It’s a novel full of heart, cold precision and an impossible, intense love – almost to the point of obsession – that refuses to be denied.

It’s two women who fall in love though it may prove fatal for them both; but when it comes to love, to your own nature, there’s only so much you can deny before you reach a breaking point. And at the end of the day, what are you willing to sacrifice for love? For the possibility of being who you are? The chance to live without shame?

Maybe everything.

It’s not an easy read, there are scenes that are harsh and unjust, but it’s also beautiful. Is it a worthy read? Yes, I think so.


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