Book Review : The Peculiars by Jen Thorpe

My first impressions about Jen Thorpe’s debut novel, The Peculiars, were that this would be a book about some strange people. So even before opening the cover, a black and white symmetrical curtain hiding a person behind it except their feet in a background of red, I had imagined several oddities to expect in this book.

The book started with a name, “Ruby” and a phobia with its definition: Eremiphobia – fear of being oneself. It’s odd that those first few words brought me round to myself as I wrote this review. Should I dive into the lessons, the characters, the places, the humour and whatever else or should I go with the flow? Which of those two were truly myself? Was I experiencing eremiphobia as I wrote these words?

It was uncanny and made me giggle a bit.

Reading this book is a miniscule study of anthropology/sociology that discusses what makes us who we are. And those are two things – what we fear and what we love.

Jen writes in a very light and uncomplicated style as she tells the story of the people who in one way or another are affected by the Centre of Improved Living in Cape Town. The Centre is being run with grants from The Ministry for Mental Wellbeing and in this particular instance is helping a select crowd get over their fears.

Ruby represents the Centre’s lead and is the first character we meet. She is the reason the program is happening. She loves to look in and observe people from afar and perhaps offer positive change. Jen, without saying it, makes Ruby the human representation of this program, of the Centre. She would like to have people’s lives change but even while she does, you get the feeling it’s sometimes not a matter of life and death. It’s sometimes like a statistical issue. A human and government indictment. We sometimes want change for the sake of the numbers. We have a part of us that leans towards Corporate Social Responsibility, not out of heart but perhaps out of societal conditioning.

It’s odd that when it comes to Jericho, the one person who seems to not have it together is the one who may actually have it altogether. Perhaps he is the one person who is at peace with himself. No eremiphobia.

However even as I say this, Ruby is not callous and in fact is patient and empathetic. You get the feeling of this in her relationship with the “mad man” who regularly engages her at the Centre: Jericho. Part of it is perhaps because Jericho is not a push over, perhaps because he doesn’t have his wits all together and is not under the same fears everyone else is facing. He has a mystic presence and says things that keep Ruby thinking.

It’s odd that when it comes to Jericho, the one person who seems to not have it together is the one who may actually have it altogether. Perhaps he is the one person who is at peace with himself. No eremiphobia.

Ruby is the node that makes this entire story come together, but she doesn’t do it alone. There are two other central characters Jen uses in telling her story. Nazma is a 27 year old Indian woman affected by hodophobia, the fear of road travel. She has failed to comfortably drive without over thinking about whether she will make a mistake or not. The other is Sam, three years older who has a fear of being robbed in his own home.

The three characters connect in different ways to the other characters in the novel, revealing personal histories, anxieties and ambiguities.

The 37 chapters reveal thirty real fears that the main three characters and their colleagues deal with. As I read, I was forced to grapple with some of my own fears.

How many people can fit into a taxi. Always one more.

Nazma, for example, in one of the chapters before she joins the class at The Centre is seen to be self-critical, wondering about how she is dressed and whether she will be well received by the others or not. She represents loneliness, those private times with ourselves before we join the public.

Jen uses Nazma’s hodophobia quite interestingly. While Nazma is trying to finally be able to pass her driving test, she has to for the time being endure public transport. And through her eyes perhaps our own personal thoughts about it are revealed. The discomfort of sharing space with strangers and people we do not like.

“How many people can fit into a taxi. Always one more. Sensory overload in a tin can.”

For Sam, questions of pride and empathy are explored and revealed. Sometimes things happen to others and we own them quite negatively. We are burdened by fears that what happened to someone else can happen to us and thus we become very closed off and unable to let ourselves imagine what could be if the event never happened.

Inasmuch as it was not the first thing I thought about on looking at the cover of the book, Jen wrote quite an emotional love story that leaves you wanting. Yes, I was left half-satisfied and half-hungry, that desire for resolution that may not always come.

There is a “language of differences”.

The love story and “hate” story in the book is written so believably that it feels like something that would happen to anyone. The progression of initial awkwardness, or initial interest, or immediate distaste is described convincingly. That first look that gets you hooked or that first action that makes you judge.

There is also a good representation of the relationships we have with other people. How do we relate with those who hurt us, those estranged from us, those coloured different from us, those more powerful than us. One of the most memorable phrases for me had to be

“A lot of how we treat those who are different derives from fear, uncertainty about how to interact.” 

It’s a very human book, a very emotional book with some events so unexpected and tragic they point to a writer who is in touch with reality and not going to lock themselves away in only happy endings. Some of the shocking events remind me of one of Disney’s new movies that does not go according to popular norm.

And for me, the best thing about this thing is the realisation that love overcomes fear.  Fears that may not be as obvious as those of the characters.

Nonetheless while in the book we deal with about thirty different fears that may affect you and I, there are 7 loves that seem to overcome the fears.

It’s very anthropological yet simple. Asserting that life is peculiar, and no one is less or more peculiar than another. We are all dealing with something unique. Whether it’s that person in a pastry shop. The neighbour with a million alarms. The mother-in-law who refuses to fly and more..It is the kind of book that makes you hope there is another chapter at the end, at least to enjoy more of the triumphs of love in all our peculiarity. In all fairness, this book can be summed up in a Bible verse – perfect love casts out all fear.

Well written, Jen.

Photo : Penguin Books Live Blog

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