Good news for Patricia Highsmith fans: Perhaps you've been praying that her head will be found cryogenically frozen next to Walt Disney's or immersed in liquid nitrogen in a lab in Copenhagen so that she can be reanimated to write more literary excursions into the dark depths of the human psyche. Sadly, the head next to Walt's is Esther Williams', but Bitter Lemon Press has published the German author Petra Hammesfahr, who is hailed on the back cover of The Sinner as "Germany's Patricia Highsmith." Hammesfahr, like Highsmith, wrote her first book at a tender age, 17--Highsmith wrote Strangers on a Train at 18--and she has many others on the shelf at this point, but The Sinner is the first to be published in English. Its dense, precise examination of a mind unraveling is indeed worthy of Highsmith's oeuvre--literary probing of abnormal psychology and perversity in the guise of crime fiction.
The Sinner's basic story is that of Cora Bender, a suburban mother fairly happily married, who does the books at her father-in-law's plumbing business. She has convinced herself she is content with her life, despite the feeling that "She'd sold herself cheap, almost for nothing, in return for the illusion of a well-ordered existence." The shelter that she's built for herself in this life was so that she could hide from a dark part of her past that she's buried all memory of, possibly due to heavy drug use, participatory or otherwise, indicated by the heavy scars on her arms.
This illusory shelter begins to crumble, though, one quiet Christmas Eve when her husband attempts to bring her pleasure through oral sex. This seemingly innocent act starts to erode the wall that Cora has built within between her consciousness and her past. Choosing suicide over impending awareness, she plans on swimming out into the ocean never to return during a family outing to the beach, but instead is driven to commit a heinous act with a fruit knife. It is here, on page 23, that the action ends and the book becomes a battle of wits between the police chief investigating Cora's crime, who is desperately trying to find some cause behind her apparently senseless act, and Cora trying to remain cut off from her subconscious.
The mastery of the writing lies in the layering of lies, half-truths, and story revisions spun by Cora about her life before domesticity, when she herself doesn't even know for sure where the reality lies. All the while, the police chief acts as part editor, part psychiatrist, sifting through the tales and trying to catch pieces of factual information and stitch them into a meaningful narrative.
And that you the reader discovers the truth of Cora's tortured past at the same time that she does only furthers the feeling of empathy with her. It's somewhat of a grittier, nightmarish version of a Alain Robbe-Grillet scenario, with the cold statues of Marienbad replaced with hot-blooded humans.