Saturday 10am #8

Tracy Ryan’s fifth novel, We Are Not Most People (Transit Lounge, 2018), is a moving story of two misfits, Kurt and Terry, and their May-September marriage, set in Perth over the 1960s to the 1990s. Tracy is a friend, so I can’t pretend to write dispassionately, but I think it a superb novel.

Kurt is a truly unusual character, a Swiss man traumatised by his years training for the Catholic priesthood in his home country. Expelled for his unorthodox beliefs, he is ill-equipped for life outside the seminary. Rescued by a strong-minded woman with her own issues, Liesl, he marries her and together they move to Australia, where he becomes a teacher.  Tracy depicts his eccentricity so convincingly. It’s a tender portrayal; there’s no trace of  mockery, just a compassionate, clear-eyed attempt to understand.

Terry is a more familiar but still under-represented character, an intelligent and sensitive teenager growing up in a troubled home in an outer-suburb of Perth in the 1970s. She briefly encounters Kurt when he’s her teacher but they are drawn together years later after his divorce. Before that, Terry’s quest for meaning takes her into a closed order of nuns only for her to find that, like Kurt, she cannot endure the religious life.

In the first half, We Are Not Most People reads like a companion novel to Tracy’s Sweet (2008), her Catholic novel to complement her earlier Baptist novel. I would have been very happy for her to continue the entire book on that theme, but instead it becomes something broader – two people at odds with the 1990s world trying to make their way in work, love, and sex. Along with Ian McEwan’s Chesil Beach, We Are Not Most People is a rare instance of contemporary literature sympathetically depicting the effects of sexual repression.

The narrative control in this novel is excellent. It’s a story that stretches decades but instead of writing a brick of a book, Tracy has selected just the right scenes from different periods, building a coherent story without all the connecting material.

I also loved the portrait of Perth and surrounds. Like in her previous novel, Claustrophobia (2014) and Laurie Steed’s You Belong Here (2018), Tracy captures so well the suburban Perth away from the familiar beaches. She shows life in Perth over a period within living memory, but before the mining boom of this century changed the city so much.

The ending is brave and abrupt. The feeling it left me with was a plane plummeting toward the ground – there’s no way to stop it, though the exact details of the ending could go several ways. Instead of depicting that, Tracy captures a poignant scene just before the end.

Tracy is probably better known as a poet than a novelist, yet her five novels published over twenty-one years represent a significant body of work on their own – diverse in genre and theme, all written with psychological acuity and a concern with the quest for a meaningful life. They successfully integrate complex literary play and strong narrative drive. We Are Not Most People is her finest novel yet and deserves a wide readership.

Links: Lisa Hill’s review gives a great precis of plot and themes.Tracy wrote a guest post on the writing process of the novel on Monique Mulligan’s blog. Tracy’s own blog, shared with her husband, John Kinsella, can be found here.

Tracy Ryan, We Are Not Most People (Transit Lounge, 2018) 256 pages, RRP $29.99.