Juggling the Stars by Tim Parks has been compared to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley series, and rightly so. Parks’ protagonist Morris Duckworth has neither Ripley’s skill, nor charm, but he does have Ripley’s aspiration for a better life. An English tutor in Italy, Morris views his wealthy clients with envy and disdain, believing himself more deserving of their wealth and helping himself to some of their possessions.
The story takes off when one of his students falls in love with him and her mother forbids the relationship. The student then runs away with Morris, and Morris concocts a complicated scheme where he pretends to have kidnapped her and sends her family ransom notes. Morris’ lies quickly catch up to him, and he has to keep spinning more and even more convoluted tales just to stay ahead.
Juggling the Stars is a quick, fast-paced thriller. It’s fascinating to see how much more Morris’ plan can go wrong, and to see what new plot he comes up with to extricate himself. And when his plan starts spiralling completely out of his control, the consequences are fatal.
The story isn’t chilling — for all his malice, Morris lacks the skill to be a truly malevolent villain. He’s a Ripley wannabe more than a Ripley character, and to the author’s credit, that seems to have been the author’s intent. Morris’ girlfriend (the student who runs away with him) may have made the stupid decision to go with Morris, but is surprisingly sharp in her assessment of him — he “feels inferior,” she tells her mother, and later on tells Morris he’s sucking up too much just because someone is rich. He’s a rather pathetic figure, yet sympathetic in a way because he’s just trying so hard to get rich and yet so many things are going wrong.
The result is a fun read, a quick page turner that will translate really well to the big screen. There are alternating bursts of humour and of horror, and despite all his crimes, a protagonist you root for.
Thank you to Thomas Allen Ltd for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.