We Are Not Most People
Perth novelist and poet Tracy Ryan’s fifth novel, We Are Not Most People, is the story of two outsiders.
The first is Kurt Stocker, a lonely, introspective man from a small village in Switzerland. Kurt spends most of the first 30 years of his life in religious institutions, first at boarding school and then in the seminary, and when he is unceremoniously expelled from the seminary he is at a loss. He meets Liesl, however, and together they migrate to Perth. They marry and have a child but like many New Australians in the 1960s they struggle to find community and gainful employment.
The second is Perth girl Terry Riley. As a teenager, Terry is taught English and languages by Kurt and she becomes infatuated with him, her “only imagined ally”. She too has an ill-fated “fall into religion”, a stint in a convent, but unlike Kurt, she figures this out early and leaves.
As their paths cross again, when Kurt’s new school needs a language tutor, Kurt has become an eccentric 50-year-old living in a caravan at the bottom of his ex-wife’s bush block.
Terry, now in her early 20s, has never stopped thinking about him: “It wasn’t me pursuing, I told myself … It was meant to be. It was fate pursuing me.” And so begins the strange union of two odd people with very limited experience with the opposite sex.
Ryan brings us to this point in their story after a hundred pages or so of brisk, spare, alternating chapters that chart Kurt and Terry’s lives apart, but it is only here that the novel becomes truly engrossing. In this way the narrative mirrors their experience, the pulse of it quickening as their lives are animated and complicated by the presence of the other, but it also means the reader has a lot of preliminaries to get through before the story proper gets going.
Kurt and Terry’s relationship is passionate but fraught. There is much to work through: Kurt’s awkwardness around intimacy; Liesl and Kurt’s odd, abiding attachment; the fact Terry is a young woman who is only just growing into herself.
With We Are Not Most People, Ryan has crafted subtle, psychological portraits of two singular people and put these two people in a room together to see how they get along. Ultimately, the results are worth the wait. SH
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 2, 2018 as "Tracy Ryan, We Are Not Most People ". Subscribe here.