Author: Tracy Ryan
Transit Lounge RRP $29.95
Review: Monique Mulligan
What lies beneath the surface of a relationship is not quite the theme author Tracy Ryan set out to explore when she began Claustrophobia: as she said in her interview with me, “I didn’t decide to explore this theme at the beginning – it was more a case of ‘what if…?’ and then the themes grew out of the ‘what if…?'”. Just as she was surprised by the outcome, readers can also expect to be surprised by the turn of events in Claustrophobia. A cleverly crafted domestic noir, it’s disturbing and thought-provoking in turn … and one that takes time to get out of your head.
Claustrophobia is set in Perth, Western Australia. It’s a fitting backdrop for a book that examines feelings of social isolation – and even isolation within a relationship – since Perth is one of the most remote cities on Earth. The sense of feeling different or set apart is further highlighted by the micro-settings of the Perth Hills (or The Hills) and the city; while the Darling Scarp is only about 45 minutes from the city, those in Perth see The Hills as separate from Perth. It’s in these two separate, but connected, settings that the story unfolds. Married couple Pen and Derrick live, work and do most things together (both work at the same school). While renovating their house, Pen discovers a letter to Derrick from a former lover. Unhappy that he’s kept it after all these years, she sets out to find the woman, without really knowing what she’ll do next. In the process, she changes jobs and falls into a passionate affair, constructing a risky world of lies as she goes about her dual life. In Perth, at her new job, she’s a different person – growing in confidence and shaking off the “Pen and Derrick” persona; at home, she’s Derrick’s wife, though he doesn’t miss her increasing disconnect from him. Despite her “freedom”, Pen still ends up feeling trapped – the sense of claustrophobia she thought defined her marriage has now transferred to the secrets she’s keeping, her worry about getting caught, and her lover.
Ryan sets up the atmosphere of suspense very well, but it’s subtly done … it creeps up on the reader bit by bit, like a primer for the sucker punch to come. The narrative’s told through Pen’s inner thoughts, so there’s only her word to go on about the “realities” of what’s happening .. after a while, you wonder who to trust, including Pen. Especially Pen. Her thoughts and actions are more like overreactions and her behaviour at times is strange. She seems a bit paranoid, overly suspicious, and more than a little odd. Is she the victim? Or in noir style, is she a perpetrator? Then again, throw this in with some references to periods of mental instability in Derrick’s life, a supposedly overbearing mother and it’s hard to know what’s what. Derrick takes a backseat to Pen and appears for much of the book as the cuckolded spouse, his character has more than a few surprises in store for readers, including a questionable incident at the school.
Taut, tense and surprising … Claustrophobia is a slow-burner with themes that lingered in my mind long after I put the book down. If obsessive attachment, isolation, betrayals, secrets and lies is the sort of thing that gets under your skin, give this one a go. It will hook you slowly, but when it does, it will reel you in tight.
Bookish treat: Perth coffee can be expensive, but luckily I have a personal barista at home who makes great cappuccino. Definitely a coffee sort of book.