Ryan, Tracy. We Are Not Most People. Yarraville: Transit Lounge, 2018. RRP $29.99. 256pp. ISBN: 9781925760040.
The title of Tracy Ryan’s fifth novel has an almost lecturing quality to it, like parents chiding their desperate-to-fit-in child. Indeed, the speaker of these words is an apologetic but stubborn older man attempting to educate his decades-younger partner on why the couple needn’t have penetrative sex as part of their intimacy. In fact, Kurt Stocker goes on to offer his shocked wife Terry Riley, if she’s bothered by it she can have her hymen broken by a doctor, or even another man.
This conversation is emblematic of Swiss-German Kurt’s aggressively unselfish approach to life. A natural socialist and helper of the poor, Kurt joined the seminary in his youth to make his parents proud, but found cruelty and control there alongside beauty and peace. Emancipated, Kurt moves to Perth in 1964 to live as a New Australian with his wife Liesl, who he prefers to call his friend because ‘wife’ to him ‘seemed far too degrading’ (124). There he sets about trying to live his values: to be useful, take up little space, and enjoy his freedom. To his dismay, his communication skills—or lack thereof—keep getting in the way, especially when it comes to women.
Ryan’s novel is cleverly structured, opening with a short prologue in which Terry, in her mid-thirties, reveals her separation from the ‘much older German man’ (9, original italics). With the ultimate outcome disclosed Ryan is able to end the narrative in an otherwise abrupt way, leaving off after the downfall has been set into motion. After the time-jumping prologue, readers are taken back to each protagonist’s youth—Kurt in wartime Switzerland and Terry a low-profile teenager living in Perth’s eastern suburbs—in chapters alternating between Terry’s first-person and Kurt’s third-person points of view. Shifting back and forth, we watch the two being drawn inexorably closer, their individual stories reaching out to one another like partners in a dance.
While Terry’s urge to live a more typical life—marriage, sex, children—grows over the course of their relationship, she and Kurt are indeed not like most people. At the time they get together Terry has recently left the Carmelite order and is studying languages at university, and Kurt is divorced from Liesl but living in a caravan on her property. The new couple also has a history, with Monsieur Stocker serving as Terry’s Year Eight French teacher a decade earlier. (Terry has had a crush the whole time, but Kurt doesn’t even recognise her.) As a married couple they live simply, enjoying music, literature, and the outdoors, but there is much churning below the surface—or piling up in the attic, as symbolised by the multiplying boxes full of his history with Liesl that Kurt can’t seem to throw away.
The novel is a sympathetic exploration of two unique characters struggling to find their place in a society whose workings they can’t quite grasp. For Kurt, and to a lesser extent Terry, the ‘other people’ of the title are an oppressive force, holding knowledge and expectations over the May-December pair. In response Kurt floats the idea of living in a tent as a means of getting close to nature and avoiding the judgemental human world. Those he tells of his idea think they understand, but really don’t, because ‘these days people called it ‘downsizing’, but they meant a smaller version of the same life’ (197). Kurt is sincere, but even he can’t avoid the creeping impact of modernity in the form of ballooning debt, environmental poisons, and gifts sent by Liesl: ‘We had no bed and no sofa, but we had a blender and a juicer and an expensive wooden coffee grinder’ (184). On top of that, Terry has needs that such a lifestyle cannot serve, and their relationship begins to break down.
Tracy Ryan has produced a quietly beautiful narrative that has many things to say about the world, both large and small. An experienced novelist and poet, Ryan is able to strip away the extraneous matter, leaving only those words, details and actions that serve the story. In a few places, however, this paring back may be a little too extensive. Both protagonists make life decisions based on deep commitments to their families, but because we don’t always meet these loved ones in the book—most significantly Tina, the daughter Kurt moves heaven and earth to be near despite his lifelong antipathy when it comes to having children—it can be difficult for a reader to fully appreciate the pull they have over the protagonists. Readers are also informed that during their courtship Kurt and Terry ‘couldn’t stop talking’ (170), but this bonding isn’t depicted beyond a brief summary. When Kurt turns somewhat self-indulgent toward the end of the book, lamenting that ‘Everything I touch goes wrong’ (217) and ‘Nothing I do ever works’ (230, original italics), it might be beneficial to have seen more of what originally drew Terry to the adult Kurt.
Despite this wallowing, readers can still empathise with impossible Kurt—early bedtimes, massive debt, and all. His ideals are so appealing, and the small life he aspires to would indeed be a relief from the modern world. But unfortunately, most people live in reality. Thank goodness we have books like We are Not Most People to ease that burden.
Brooke Dunnell is a Perth-based writer, reader, reviewer, editor, and workshop facilitator. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Western Australia and has had short fiction published in Best Australian Stories, Westerly, Meanjin, New Australian Stories 2 and other anthologies.