Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2014

Claustrophobia (2014), by Tracy Ryan

ClaustrophobiaClaustrophobia is an interesting book.  It took a little while to lure me in, but once it did, I became more and more intrigued.  It reminded me of Julie Proudfoot’s The Neighbour (see my review) because once again the reader is inside the mind of someone who is seriously psychologically disturbed.  So part of the pleasure is decoding what to believe.

Pen (Penelope) Barber reveals herself as a bit odd right from the start.  In conversation with her awful hectoring mother, Pen thinks mutinous thoughts, but never confronts her – or anyone else who provokes her self-righteous feeling of inferiority .  Indeed, she’s often in a curious dream world of her own, having conversations in her mind that she would never dare to have in real life.  She has a nice husband called Derrick, who seems devoted to her, but when a parcel is delivered for him her overreaction is bizarre: she vacillates between fantasies about surprise gifts, and unhealthy suspicion. And when she finds an hysterical letter that Derrick sent in the death throes of a long-ago love-affair, she decides that this long-ago lover must be dealt with in no uncertain terms.

It a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’.   It turns out that this lover from the eastern seaboard is an associate professor now also living in Perth, and that enables Pen to stalk her.    However, things don’t turn out as she expects and before long she is enmeshed in a tortuous tangle of lies, accomplished with a breathtaking level of deceit.  It’s an astonishing transformation, from a resentful woman who has no confidence in herself at all to one who risks everything to have what she wants.  It’s difficult to say much more about it without ruining what is a very surprising plot. (The blurb says that ‘the novel possesses the dark wit, psychological insight and narrative momentum of a Patricia Highsmith’ which reminded me yet again that I have The Talented Mr Ripley on my TBR and I really should get round to reading it.)

There’s a calamity at the school which might have sordid undertones but that’s not fleshed out.  Nobody wants to rock the boat or make nebulous accusations – which might be why the doggedly dutiful Derrick later on turns out to be surprisingly good at a cover-up.

But it’s the characterisation of women which is most interesting: the mother still trying to dominate her daughter’s life; Jean Sergeant the school counsellor who seems remarkably insensitive, and the femme fatale Kathleen Nancarrow.  None of them really connect with Pen, because she doesn’t connect with anyone.  Is she a sociopath?  I haven’t read enough crime novels to know…

That’s a suitably creepy cover, BTW, but the car reminds me of what seems to be a small ‘continuity’ error in the book.  Pen and Derrrick have only one car, a Volvo, which works fine because they work at the same school.  They go in together, and she drives it home when she finishes her part time work in the office, and he takes the bus home when he’s finished teaching in the afternoon.  On the day Pen sets out to do some mischief she takes a sickie and sends Derrick off to work in the Volvo. (p.35)  She sets off for UWA (that’s the university with the peacocks) in an unspecified form of transport, but lo! when (having executed her little bit of sabotage), she leaves – she takes herself safely out to the Volvo parked below(p. 43) How did she do that, eh?

PS 20/7/14 Mystery solved!  I’ve had an email from the publisher about what I thought was a ‘continuity error’.  Apparently the line space in the MS – conveying the passage of time and that the day Pen drives to and from UWA in the Volvo is  a different day to the day that Derrick has it –  fell on a page-split in the final version that went to print.  This will be sorted out in the next edition.

Author: Tracy Ryan
Title: Claustrophobia
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2014
Source: review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


Fishpond: Claustrophobia


  1. I read Claustrophobia and found that the characters changed too much for me to believe in them. Well done Lisa, in picking up how Pen drove off in the Volvo even though Derrick was supposed to have it. I didn’t find the story creepy, in fact I thought it was a bit silly.


    • I know where you’re coming from, Meg. I also thought that some of what happened lacked credibility. But then I thought, if this woman – and *no spoilers* Derek the Dogged – are as odd as they both must surely be to thrive in this marriage, then indeed they might think/act like that. In the case of Pen, all that repression might well surge up and bring out that strange behaviour, and then, look how quickly she reverts to her submissive self when D starts acting like the Masterful Male that he must be in order to thrive as he does at school.
      I suppose the other thing is that in general I find this kind of book silly, but I’ve reviewed it here (as best I can) on its own terms. It’s the genre, written around people doing scary things and the author using pop psychology as a prop for credibility. Crime novels and thrillers – they rely for their success on readers making allowances for all kinds of odd stuff. The reader has to be willing to accept lashings of Fate and Coincidence and to get into the symbiotic relationship between the perpetrator and the nemesis. The genre rarely works for me.
      But lots of readers whose opinion I value and whose thoughts I admire (e.g. Kim from Reading Matters) love books like this. I still think I ought to read Highsmith!


  2. […] Allinson, Miles Fever of Animals Scribe Publications (2015), see my review Bradley, James Clade Penguin Books (2015) Harrower, Elizabeth In Certain Circles Text Publishing (2014), see my review and a Sensational Snippet Harrower, Elizabeth A Few Days in the Country and Other Stories Text Publishing (2015) Jones, Gail A Guide to Berlin Vintage Books (2015) Kinsella, John Crow’s Breath Transit Lounge (2015) London, Joan The Golden Age Vintage Books (2014), see my review and a Sensational Snippet Midalia, Susan Feet to the Stars and Other Stories UWA Publishing (2015) Ryan, Tracy Claustrophobia Transit Lounge (2014), see my review […]


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