At the beginning of Claustrophobia Pen Barber is leading a strangely muted life in the outer suburbs of Perth. Married for 10 years to the pleasant but rather wussy Derrick, she has no children and apparently no life beyond her home and a part-time job as receptionist at the college where Derrick teaches. She doesn’t seem to have any strong feelings about any of this; in fact, her upbringing at the hands of a sourly critical mother has trained her not to think about her feelings. She’s clever, we learn, but has no ambition to do anything with her cleverness; she’s attractive, we learn from what other say about her, but doesn’t seem to have any awareness of it. She loves Derrick, but without passion; he’s kind, reliable, and he loves her completely.
Derrick is her life project. When she met him he had had a nervous breakdown after a love affair with an older woman, one of his university lecturers. It’s Pen who got him back to study, got him qualified as a teacher, got him to move from the public system to a prestigious private college.
She had worked and scraped to build him the kind of buffer against the world that he’d need if he was to thrive (26)
When Pen finds a 10-year-old letter to his lover Kathleen, marked Return to sender, she’s shocked at the passion it reveals and at the fact that Derrick writes that he’ll marry Pen if Kathleen doesn’t respond to him.
He had loved some else and not her at all. (30)
But confrontation isn’t her style. Instead, she sets out to find Kathleen. And then things get very complicated. Events seize pragmatic, controlled Pen and whirl her into deceit after deceit, only half-knowing where she’s going, both willing and unwilling.
She was lost, and she knew it, but she had to keep moving. (139)
It’s difficult to juggle the ordinariness of suburban life with subterranean suspense, and clever and engaging as it is, I didn’t think Tracy Ryan quite pulled it off. The blurb mentions Highsmith, but it doesn’t have that Highsmithian creepiness that gets into your bones – even though the end of the story is worthy of Highsmith herself.