Claustrophobia: A novel


ISBN: 9781921924729 Format: 234X153mm 240pp Rights: World excluding ANZ Release / Publication Date: 01 /07 /2014


Shortlisted for The Western Australian Premier’s Literary Awards 2016

Claustrophobia is the taut, compelling story of a young Perth wife who sets out to protect her husband by stalking his ex-lover, but unexpectedly falls into a passionate affair and a world of lies. In a novel that possesses the dark wit, psychological insight and narrative momentum of a Patricia Highsmith, Tracy Ryan captures the disturbing elements that sometimes lurk beneath the surface of a marriage. The realities of obsessive attachment and social isolation are explored through a deft and thought-provoking look at a complex personality and a plot that twists its page-turning way into our psyche.

On Tracy Ryan’s previous novel Sweet:
‘[A] claustrophobic but quite beautifully written saga… Ryan has crafted a novel that confronts big issues and big ideas while remaining accessible and wonderfully alive.’ – Patrick Allington, The Adelaide Advertiser

‘Ryan’s grasp of psychology is acute and her characterisations relentless and compelling.’ – Rhyll McMaster, Island

Tracy Ryan was born in Western Australia and grew up there as part of a large family. She has taught literature, creative writing and film at various universities in Australia and in England, and worked as a bookseller, editor and translator. She currently teaches fiction writing at the University of Tübingen, Germany. Her poetry has won many awards. Her most recent collection is Rose Interior (Giramondo 2022), and she is the author of five critically acclaimed novels. Claustrophobia, her fourth novel was published by Transit Lounge in 2014 and by Newton Compton Editori as Una vita tranquilla in 2015. It was shortlisted for the 2016 Western Australian Premier’s Awards. Tracy was the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards Fellowship winner in 2023. Tracy speaks German, French and Italian as well as English. The Queen’s Apprenticeship is the first in a series of three novels focussed on the Queens of the Navarre.

… The affair spirals out of control and although it is inevitable that things come to a head, no one is prepared for the climax.

Sue Stevenson, The Examiner, 30 August 2014

Pen Barber has an unremarkable life in the Western Australian suburbs. Her relationship with her husband Derek is not bad, but it has become bland and formulaic. The familiar routine of her life is disturbed when she finds an old letter from Derek’s university days. What she reads in it casts doubt on everything she believed to be true about her husband and her marriage, and so she sets out to unravel what she believes to be the untold truth of his past. Convinced that the answer lies with one of Derek’s ex-lovers, Pen decides to stalk her. In the process she finds out things about herself that she could not have imagined, and becomes trapped in a web of her own lies and deception. This is a short, tightly written book and an intense exploration of obsession and introspection. Pen’s internal monologue is compelling and intimate. The story also has a stunning finale that readers will be turning over in their heads hours after they have finished it. I would recommend Claustrophobiato readers of Jodi Picoult, Patricia Highsmith and Gillian Flynn, though it is more subtle than Gone Girl. If you have book club customers, you should tell them about this one too. It is a little book that will start big conversations.

**** 4 Stars Stefen Brazulaitis, Bookseller+Publisher  

Reading Claustrophobia, I found myself suspicious of every moment, worrying at the actions and words of everyone within the book. The tension seemed to burrow through the pages, up my fingers and into my subconscious. It became a heightened reading experience, as alarming as its title and as beautiful as a holiday brochure. An internal rollercoaster at a psychologist’s theme park, this is a novel of dissatisfaction and unknown desire, of fleeting moments and of having a desperate need to seek privacy in a city where two million people is still not enough to hide within, and where – eventually – you will be found.

Fiona Hardy, Readings Monthly July 2014

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.

Lisa Hill,

Tracy Ryan does a brilliant job of conveying the psychological intensity and oddity of the situation. 

Kerryn Goldsworthy, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald July 11 2014

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 putsClaustrophobia 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!

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.

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.