Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 28, 2018

We Are Not Most People (2018), by Tracy Ryan

We Are Not Most People is, as the title implies, a character-driven novel about people who don’t fit the common mould.

Relationships between an older man and a much younger woman – or May-September relationships – are often mocked.  When they occur between a middle-aged man who’s dumped the woman who supported his career so that he can have a ‘trophy wife’, it’s often attributed to a mid-crisis on the one hand, and a grasping nature on the other.  But what if it’s a case of just not meeting the right person until late in life?

Kurt Stocker’s childhood in Switzerland is dominated by conformity.  His parents and teachers are strict and unyielding in their expectations of the boy. When his teacher derides his tentative attempts to express himself imaginatively, he is so terrified of his parents’ response that he asks to change schools – and ends up in the dogmatic realm of the priests instead.  To please his parents he goes into the seminary to become a priest but he can’t adapt to the oppressive regimen and is expelled, with nothing to his name and no support to reintegrate into the community. As he says to Liesl, the quixotic music mistress who is his only friend:

‘Liesl, I’m thirty years old, and I don’t know anything.  I don’t know how to get a room or an apartment.  Let alone a job.’ (p.102)

He makes a marriage to Liesl and they have a child, but the marriage is dysfunctional.  Liesl is a manipulative bully while he is shy and diffident, nursing rebellious thoughts within. Their incompatibility becomes worse when they migrate to Australia, where her iconoclasm dissipates because there is no oppressive religious community to rebel against.

Woven through Kurt’s third person narrative in alternating chapters, is the story narrated by Terry.  A misfit in small town Australia, she is drawn to her language teacher, Mr Stocker, enjoying his language classes and sensing something of his unusual character.  She is an excellent student and on her way towards transcending the common fate of young women in her town, when disaster strikes and she leaves school prematurely.  She drifts into unemployment punctuated by menial work, and despite her secular background, becomes drawn to the religious life.  The Carmelites, no less, an enclosed order whose values ultimately shock her.

Novice Mistress had chosen her topic for today.  The same topic, with a specific variation: detachment from our loved ones.

‘A good Carmelite cleaves to God only,’ she said, ‘and sees all other attachments as distraction from Him.  Because a Carmelite is charitable and forbearing, she still receives visitors as she must, but she feels them as a burden, an interruption to her communion with God, a sacrifice she must make to show compassion for His creatures.  She takes no pleasure in them.’ (p.145-6)

Terry can’t bear this:

Solitary as I might feel, I could never regard those I loved as a burden, no matter how virtuous, or saintly, or dispassionate that might be.  I felt the heat rising in me, flaming like the long grass but unable to be kept down, and something lumplike, forgotten, melted and gone cold, where maybe what people call a heart, a soul, a conduit of some kind used to be. (p.146)

Both Kurt and Terry have been established as lost souls who are passive and poor much like Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, but their departures from the religious life are not equally decisive.  Terry leaves of her own volition; Kurt is expelled. Their experiences of isolation and displacement are only superficially similar…

The relationship of these two damaged people in the secular world is no starry-eyed romance.  They love each other dearly, but the obligations of the conventional world, and Liesl’s ongoing demands that outlast Kurt’s relationship with his daughter Tina, sabotage their fragile attempts at togetherness.  The sexual desire so often derided in the stereotypical May-September relationship is a critical impasse because Kurt is so traumatised by events in the seminary and his disastrous relationship with Liesl that it seems impossible for him ever to have a normal loving relationship.

Readers looking for a neat-and-tidy solution to this impasse will be disappointed.   Ryan quotes Villette in the Epilogue:

Here pause: pause at once.  There is enough said.  Trouble no quiet, kind heart; leave sunny imaginations hope… Let them picture union and a happy succeeding life.

We Are Not Most People, however, is a deeply satisfying book that is rich in themes for discussion.  I read it loafing about here at Norfolk Island, surrounded by natural beauty warped by the island’s history as a penal colony.  I found myself wondering why humans value conformity so much and why we allow religious institutions to inflict their strictures on vulnerable young lives.

There are book group notes at the Transit Lounge website.

Author: Tracy Ryan
Title: We Are Not Most People
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2018
ISBN: 9781925760040
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. Thank you for another perceptive review. Sounds a satisfying read Lisa and you always point to the interesting discussions good stories encourage. As someone who lived an ‘unconventional’ but very satisfying and loving relationship I say a hearty cheer to challenging conformity😆 and by the way considering the number of books read and reviewed while you’ve been staying on Norfolk, ‘loafing’ is not the first word that springs to my mind😘


    • Thanks, Mairi, I’ve certainly been busy blogging today. I’ve written up three museums and have one more to go before I can do the post for the Botanic Gardens from yesterday!


  2. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for the review. Tracy is a friend and this is next on my reading list. Sounds a companion novel to Sweet (2008) in its treatment of religious themes.


    • I’ve also read her Claustrophobia but not her earlier books, I like her thoughtful interrogation of issues:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. As I was reading your review I was thinking it sounds like a good book group choice – glad to see some book group questions are available (my group is great at talking, just not always about the book!).


    • Ha ha, reminds me of the last book group I joined: children, school sport and renovations, in that order. At the last meeting I went to, I was the only one who’d read the book!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I always read the book and there’s one group member who never does (we’re all okay with that 😬) and then the others, it’s a month-by-month affair – sometimes they have, sometimes not. Usually the discussion leads very quickly from something that happens in the book to real life…

        I discovered recently that two of the members belong to other book groups as well. I have many thoughts about this (still ordering them) – might write a post…


        • It’s a vexed issue… there are very disciplined groups, and others that are intended to be social or ‘me’ time, and everyone in the group is ok with that. But the difficulty is that they rarely signal which type they are.
          Also CAE bookgroups are stuck with the choice of books that come in their box for the year. When I belonged to one of those, it was awful, I felt I had to read some books that I wouldn’t have wasted a millisecond on.


          • As you know, my reading group is a disciplined one and I love it. We did give up CAE after three or four years. YOU can make CAE work if you are very rigorous in your choices, but I much prefer our method now of consensus choices. I think I like that better than the groups where each person takes turns choosing books!

            This sounds fascinating – and I do like your opening salvo about what if it’s just not the case of meeting the right person. Fair point.


            • The trouble with CAE (as I understand it) is that a group selects a list of books but they don’t always get their choices. The group I joined had already made their choices, and they made a point of noting whether the current book was a choice or one they’d had given to them because what they had chosen wasn’t available. I guess everyone wants the popular and recent books so it’s not CAE’s fault. But at the end of the day, 6 or 8 people are reading (or not reading!) a book they don’t really want to read.


              • When we were in CAE, we chose books for 6 months a year. To do that they recommended that you select 18. They guaranteed to send you one of those 18. I don’t think they ever didn’t. Our problem was that after a couple of years our process, which had been rigorous, became slack because some didn’t do their selection task resulting in a few of us at the last minute having to come up with our 18. Then when some of the books came it was “who chose that!” So, from my point of view, unless CAE has changed, it’s all about the process. Probably, though, if you selected 18 new books they may not be able to meet their guarantee. We tried to be broad.


                • From memory, I think the group made 18 choices to cover one book per month for the year. But *chuckle* since they mostly didn’t read them, I don’t suppose it mattered all that much!

                  Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds a wonderful book. I agree so much with your sentence, “I found myself wondering why humans value conformity so much and why we allow religious institutions to inflict their strictures on vulnerable young lives.”
    That really is the $64,000 question 🐧🐧🐧


    • And a question we need to keep asking now that over religiosity is becoming mainstream in our parliaments…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I miss the flow of comments through my inbox resulting from my own lateness (and often failure) in commenting these days. I think a lot of conformity comes from the love of some for imposing rules, the need of many for others to makes the rules, and their failure to oppose bad rules. I imagine you, like me, have attempted to persuade people we are rapidly falling into a surveillance state and are met mostly with indifference.


    • Not to worry, Bill, it’s always good to hear from you:)
      I wonder if conformity comes about because as parents we (mostly) expect out children to conform to our rules of behaviour, whatever they are, and schools then expect children to do the same. So at a formative period most children learn the rewards of conformity – which at that age are mostly harmless rules like waiting your turn, and letting others talk without interruption and not pinching other people’s property. But things go wrong, perhaps, in secondary schools if divergent views aren’t fostered, and the pressure to finish Y12 means that parents hesitate to encourage doing things differently.
      It’s ironic that in the age of unfettered choice, people still mostly choose the same thing as everyone else. Herd behaviour, maybe, because people feel that when everything seems to be falling apart, staying with the herd makes them feel secure?


  6. […] Lisa Hill’s review gives a great precis of plot and themes.Tracy wrote a guest post on the writing process of the […]


  7. […] We Are Not Most People, by Tracy Ryan  […]


  8. […] We Are Not Most People, by Tracy Ryan […]


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