Tracy Ryan, Claustrophobia, Melbourne: Transit Lounge Publishing, 2014. 240pp, $29.95, ISBN: 9781921924729
I came home to find Claustrophobia, by Tracy Ryan, in a red and white package on my doorstep. Home, for me, is Perth, and the city is integral to Ryan’s book.
Perhaps I couldn’t help but read the novel with the landscape in mind because I was reading it sunk into that landscape. I took the book with me to work. The Swan River, the city and Kings Park flashed past outside train windows; the hills, distant, were hemming us in. Off the train, the birds and the bush were so obvious, so brutal, so loud. I was, I think, looking forward to reading something local, just as much as I was looking forward to being somewhere local. But Claustrophobia was tense and twisting enough to make me think twice about the Perth I know. It was tight enough to give the place an uncanny glint; it was dark enough to make me see the shadows scudding along under clouds which seemed a little lower than they should be.
Claustrophobia is the story of Penelope Barber—Pen—who lives the life of a hesitant housewife in the Perth hills. I say “hesitant” because Pen is unable to have children, she is constrained in her relationship with her own mother, and seems not-quite-content in her admin job. The ways in which Pen is unable to reach that mythological, ideal status are swirled around by Ryan to help create a fragmented, constrained protagonist. The energy in the book stems from Pen’s complicated psychology, foremost being that desire to be a mother. Her relationship with her husband, Derrick, is defined by it. Pen and Derrick live in a half-renovated house and in an insular, ten-year-old marriage, until Pen finds a letter while sorting through boxes. It’s by Derrick, and is addressed to an ex-lover, returned to sender. It makes Pen see her life and marriage very differently, it’s ‘the vital piece of information she hadn’t even known was missing’ (29). What follows the discovery of the letter is an exercise in subtle manipulation, in the chasing of lies, illicit love, and an exploration of Pen’s efforts to keep hold of the world she knows (which keeps breaking up). Of course, there is ‘the power … got from secret knowledge’ (39), but there is also the growing sense that we all have some reserves of that power. In Pen’s story there is both a critique of home life and an acknowledgment of the necessity of domesticity. As the plot twists and tightens so does the net Pen finds herself in, and that necessity takes on a darkened hue.
In the publicity for Claustrophobia comparisons are made between Ryan’s work and Gone Girl, the best-selling novel by Gillian Flynn, as well as with the writing of Patricia Highsmith. The characters Ryan draws, starting with Pen, are easier to like than Flynn’s, because their flaws are easier to empathise with, and their psychological motives are more believable. That’s what made things that little bit eerie while I was reading: the people seemed real, and while I felt that Pen changed her mind quickly and often, it’s probably true that, had I been in her situation, I would have been just as panicked, just as reckless. The fact that the characters are perversely likable is an impressive achievement.
Ryan makes her own comparisons to Highsmith (and Georges Simenon) which, at times, forced the point. The writing was, occasionally, a little self-conscious as opposed to reflexive. And Ryan did not need to be self-conscious, because Claustrophobia is a gripping domestic noir. It’s convincing in the motivations of the characters and the deadpan sense of Perth that works through the narrative, and it’s chilling in the way place and character combine to make the city and its people uncanny. Or, perhaps, because we recognise that the bits and pieces of personality that Ryan turns uncanny are present in the thoughts and impressions that litter our consciousness.
Daniel Juckes is a PhD Candidate at Curtin University, Western Australia.