On the back of my last post commending a book’s cover, I should take a moment to admire Claustrophobia‘s, too. Look at that colour scheme. It’s – what – dusk? But on a sunny day, in a convertible, lookin cool. There’s not a snowflake, a silhouette, or a creepy-looking tree to be found. Which fits with the book itself: while there is an unnerving undercurrent the whole way through, it is no gore-splattered forensic crime. This tends towards the psychological end of the crime genre scale, and also tends all the way west on the Australian fiction scale, ending up in Perth, Western Australia.
Pen Barber is a woman who has found her rut in life and shaped herself to fit in it. She has a job she likes enough with colleagues who fluctuate between nice-ish and patronising; a mother who she sees a lot and who made me feel anxious just by reading her; a house in the Perth almost-wilderness and a husband, Derek, with whom she shares everything: her job, her interests, her chocolate. Then they decide to renovate their home, and in the cleaning frenzy that follows such a decision, Pen finds a letter that throws her completely off-kilter. When Derek was at university, one of his female professors seduced him, ditched him, and caused a fracture in Derek’s mental health. In Pen’s hands, she holds a letter he wrote to the professor, Kathleen Nancarrow, a few years after that incident. The words rake at her heart. And with them, she decides the only way to protect her beloved husband is to find this woman and make sure she won’t hurt him again. Pen doesn’t know how, but she has things on her side: the internet, time, and the element of surprise.
Pen is a hard character to place. You feel the ache of her life: one that seems perfect but doesn’t quite fit her like it should. She seems capable of much more than you expect – she did set out to stalk someone, after all – but remains human all the while, messing up her vengeance in small, sighted ways, then taking more risks, until the real-life Kathleen Nancarrow – beautiful, smart, charming Kathleen Nancarrow – changes her gameplan entirely.
Ryan’s publisher, Transit Lounge, have a real knack for finding things that feel quite modern and fresh (there’s a word I don’t like using, but feels apt all the same) and Australian; it floods every page. There’s local vernacular, but natural, not to make you cringe; there are trees, and landscape, and wildlife that flits in and out of a university cafe. There is passion, and that life-sized claustrophobia that your world can induce.
It’s also been likened to Gone Girl, which, well, at least it’s about a woman who is hiding a secret that grows with every page, so maybe I’ll give this one a pass. An editing decision that threw me was to have Pen’s thoughts in quotation marks – it’s written in the third person – which made me occasionally think she was having a conversation out loud instead of in her head and would sometimes throw me off. But it’s a very minor point in a book that was a disquieting kind of read – but in the good kind of way.