We are not most people, says Kurt Stocker to his much younger lover Terry when she worries about what others think of them as a couple. Terry has grown up a bookish misfit, telling herself she doesn’t care about fitting in, allying herself with her eccentric art teacher, another misfit who doesn’t seem to care. She goes so far as to join an enclosed religious order – but she doesn’t fit in there either. When she meets her teacher, Kurt, again, a strangely stifled love affair develops. Kurt says he loves her, he believes he loves her, but he doesn’t want to make love to her, and he still seems enmeshed with his former wife. And Terry learns the truth of her mother’s old saying, Don’t care was made to care.
As a child, Kurt cared too much what others thought, even joining a religious order to please his parents. But he’s gone in the other direction from Terry. He really doesn’t care and has developed a kind of emotional emptiness that gives nothing back to those who love him. His detachment has been strengthened by his outsider status as an immigrant in a very Anglo-centric Australia.
He felt…as if he’d landed somewhere centuries away from his own world and the arcane spells that were his private language. Other people were a mystery. (230)
This is a sad, sober story, psychologically subtle and very strong in its creation of place and social mores in pre-war Switzerland and post-war Australia. Tracy Ryan is a highly-regarded poet, and this is her fifth novel. I’ll be reading the others. I especially like the sound of her fourth, Claustrophobia, which the Australian Book Review describes as a smart and fast-paced hurtle through lust, obsession, and stultifying patterns of dependency and self-delusion.