In brief: Pen finds a letter from her husband to his former lover while cleaning up. This letter sends her searching for the woman, falling in love and getting tangled in a web of deceit…
The good: The book grabs you and takes you into deep its world, while the twist will shock you.
The not-so-good: A little slow at the start – give it 2 chapters, then you’ll be hooked.
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Setting: Western Australia
My rating: 9.5 out of 10
You may think that I chose Claustrophobia by Tracy Ryan simply for the cover. It’s slightly retro, giving the idea of a Thelma and Louise type escape, yet the woman is still tightly wrapped up in her scarf. The cover is symbolic of what’s to come, as the protagonist tries to investigate suspected infidelity, and then falls in love. Whatever she does, she can’t escape the confines of her life and her actions.
The novel centres around Pen (don’t call her Penelope), who lives a quiet life with her husband in Perth’s Hills region. She works at the school in administration; he’s a teacher with ambitions. Children don’t seem to be on the agenda for the couple, so they’ve decided to renovate their house instead. While cleaning up, Pen finds a letter her husband wrote to his former lover, a lecturer at his university while he was a student. It was this relationship that landed him in hospital after a breakdown and led him to meet Pen, who was working in a lunch bar near the hospital. Pen doesn’t like the tone of the letter as it insinuates that she is Derrick’s second (and poorer) choice. She decides that she’s going to track down Kathleen, which is easy. She’s working at the university in central Perth, so Pen organises to attend one of her extension classes for the general public. Then she gets a job at the university library. Then she might be falling in love…
This novel starts off quietly, but ends with a roar. It’s a book that seeps into your skin and I simply couldn’t stop thinking about it. I initially thought it would be a tale of quiet domesticity laced with betrayal, but it’s so much more. It’s the blossoming of Pen as a person in her own right, from Derrick’s wife and henpecked daughter to a woman capable of forming a tangled web of lies. It’s about exploration of sexuality, gaining independence and how a marriage can be suffocating for one party and not the other. This is a cleverly plotted novel with a fantastic twist at the end that puts Claustrophobia up there with The Talented Mr Ripley (and a few shades of Carol [or The Price of Salt], also by Patricia Highsmith). I also love how the novel ties in the strange coincidences that tend to happen in Perth – even though the city is growing, no individual seems to be one or two degrees away from the other (it’s highly likely that you’ll open your social media account to find that two people from different parts of your social sphere know each other well). Pen knows that, and it makes her lying and plotting to keep Kathleen and Derrick separate all the more risky. When she goes ‘down south’ (to the south west region of Western Australia) with Kathleen, she’s petrified that she’ll see someone, that there will be some record of her being there. Pen’s desperation to remove all evidence might seem excessive, but there’s probably someone she knows in the same area!
I loved the descriptions of Perth and the Hills area as separate entities, because they are seen that way locally (I’m not going to go into the details, things could get heated!). As Pen comes down the hill to town, she shakes off the shackles that define her as wife. She’s an entirely different person by the time she’s driving by the river to the university (the descriptions are of the University of Western Australia, and yes, there are peacocks). Perth seems to offer both opportunity and freedom to Pen – wouldn’t you feel the same way, driving between the river and native bushland? It also appears to be her own territory, compared to the Hills, which belongs to Derrick. Derrick belongs firmly on the sidelines for most of the book – there’s a subplot of an incident at the school, which is handled with disbelief and shock, but is quickly swept under the carpet. It’s at the conclusion of the novel that he shows his true colours – will they be for or against Pen?
The finale will have you on the edge of your seat. It’s so different to the rest of the book –frenetic and full of feeling. At the end, you’ll be wondering what happens next for Pen and the secrets each individual hides in this town. Part love story and part psychological thriller, Claustrophobia is a book that shouldn’t be missed.