Now don’t be fooled by the title, Highsmith’s short story collection doesn’t paint pictures of rotten men, and victim women. Instead Highsmith creates a sweetshop’s worth of lurid, eccentric, strange, and twisted female characters, each with their own slightly fantastical and fearsome story. The tales are each super short and snappy, perfect for a commute, or to read while waiting for a friend instead of awkwardly staring into your phone. Often the endings are cut short and leave you gagging for more, with the unfortunate event of our protagonist’s death or a murderous action. This may be why in his review for The Guardian Nicholas Lezard suggests it might be a book you would ‘give a misogynist for his birthday’, as it rarely paints a favourable image of the women. However, when film and TV rarely gives us the representation of flawed, formidable and ferocious women I welcomed Highsmith’s unashamedly sexual, corrupted and confused women into my world. Moreover, as we saw hordes of fabulous nasty women take to the streets this weekend, women empowered by their anger, sexual agency, and the unrelenting patriarchal push this is my top recommendation to you.
My personal favourite tale was the story of Oona the Jolly Cave Woman. From the opening line I was intrigued by and felt a comradery with her ‘She was a bit hairy, one front tooth missing, but her sex appeal was apparent at a distance of two hundred yards or more, like an odour, which perhaps it was’. Highsmith’s writing has wonderful wit to it, which in a way demystifies the sexualised image of the female. The story tells of a particular man who lusts after Oona, so his wife kills her. He then builds a statue of Oona, which gets him killed. A series of lustful killings, and many idolising images of Oona later, Highsmith creates a comedic sense of this jealousy thing having been going on since the dawn of time, and it will probably continue. It may just get less assassination based as seen in this prehistoric age. Poor Oona was just a jolly, horny cavewoman having fun and she accidentally triggered a murder spree because she was so darn fuckable.
Another one which stood out was The Perfect Little Lady. Here Highsmith tells us of a little girl Thea, who embodies all that a young lady should be, with perfect manners, etiquette, and always looking perfectly presentable. But this tale proves there is no such thing as a perfect little lady, and takes us on a sinister journey of how this perfect girl grows up. She slices through gendered stereotypes with the only voice of caution being her worried father’s. Highsmith always surprises and teases out the devilish details with expert precision.
There are so many other fascinating stories, that I wish I could mention but I encourage you to discover them for yourselves. So in a week were we have seen people all over the world take to the streets, to reclaim their space and place within the world, and by doing so saying fuck you to all those others who can’t see the boldness and power in being a ‘nasty woman’. I remind you that literature is always a source of inspiration and determination. It is a place where the words and work of women cannot be erased.