Despite its repeated references to the novels of Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon I wouldn’t call CLAUSTROPHOBIA crime fiction and not just because I set myself a personal challenge to read outside my comfort zone a little more this year and am keen to allocate some reading to a column other than crime. Whatever you call it though CLAUSTROPHOBIA is a rather delicious novel.
It is the story of Pen (not Penny or Penelope) and Derrick Barber. A young couple living in Perth, Western Australia who both work at a private school for boys. Derrick is a teacher, Pen works in administration. Children have not happened for the couple and they have decided to renovate their house in response. Extra bedrooms will not be needed: better to remove them than leave a constant reminder of what might have been. But in the clean up Pen finds a letter that Derrick had written to an old lover which makes her re-think their entire relationship.
I know it’s against the rules but I chose this book because of its cover. I’ve been on a bit of a Mad Men binge lately and the cover reminded me of Betty, one of the key characters from the series. This book is set in modern Australia rather than 1960’s New York but even now that I’ve read it there are actually more similarities between the two women than this single image. They are both in need of something more than being defined by their husbands, though neither of them really understands this or is prepared for the consequences of breaking out.
In addition to living up to the promise of its cover, this novel also embodies its title. The first way it does this is with its limited cast of characters. There are really only three people who have any tangible impact on events and that gives the story its overall claustrophobic sensibility. It is a tight, cloying little world into which the reader is drawn. Relying on so few people can be a risky move but Ryan has made it work well; there is never any sense that something is missing.
Pen, from whose perspective the story unfolds, is living a pretty claustrophobic existence too. In the beginning she is almost entirely defined by her relationship with her husband whom she saw as a means to lift herself out of a life – an upbringing – she did not like. But when she embarks on her…adventure…she is almost immediately drawn into another relationship that soon develops a smothering sensibility. And after the final drama has taken place and Pen realises that she has tied herself inextricably to the whims of another human being I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for her plight, even though I wasn’t overly fond of Pen and had gritted my teeth at some of her choices.
It is a book full of tension and the reader is never lulled with any sense that things will resolve in a certain way. We mistrust everyone, question their motives, their reliability, their veracity. It’s quite a ride. If I were giving points I’d allocate extra for the novel’s length: it is a rare delight to read a complete story told in under 300 pages these days. I recommend this one
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Publisher Transit Lounge 
Length 238 pages
Book Series standalone
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