Tracy Ryan probes the dark secrets of a perfect fictional marriage.
Tracy Ryan probes the dark secrets of a 'perfect' fictional marriage.

Just how well do you know the person you sleep next to every night? This is the question at the heart of a new wave of domestic noir thrillers which have been topping bestseller lists in recent months.

While US author Gillian Flynn's 2012 hit Gone Girl — soon to be a film starring Ben Affleck — is acknowledged widely as the book that launched the current mania, plenty of other publishers and writers have also enjoyed commercial success with tales exploring the secret sides of marital relations, including English writer S.J. Watson with Before I Go To Sleep and Sydney-born author Liane Moriarty with The Husband's Secret.

Now readers can devour a toxic-marriage thriller set in our very own backyard, thanks to local novelist Tracy Ryan.

In her fourth full-length offering, Claustrophobia, Ryan charts the trials and tribulations of Pen, a 30-something Perth wife who sets out to protect her husband by stalking his ex-lover.

What begins as a simple Google search escalates quickly as Pen develops a relationship with "the other woman" and finds herself trapped in a world of lies with no easy escape in sight.

Ryan says she didn't consciously set out to produce a book which would satisfy the hordes of readers craving an unputdownable domestic thriller, but can see how Claustrophobia fits with the new trend.

"I started writing Claustrophobia years ago and only read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl in the last couple of weeks, so it didn't influence my book," she says. "But they both deal with a marriage and both are suspense, so I can understand the comparison. However, the characters and the plotlines are quite different."

Ryan says she was interested in unmasking the disturbing elements which can fester beneath the surface of a seemingly perfect marriage.

"Time and again, news stories show us that people often don't completely know their partners," she says. "Of course these are the extreme cases but for a writer that's what is fascinating. That's what started me thinking about it — as well as reading different fictions that also explore identity, deception and wrongdoing."

Ryan says she was also driven by a desire to craft a page-turning plot which would grip her readers from the outset.

"I love it when I can't put a book down, when it compels me to go on reading, even if I don't agree with it," she says. "What makes us keep reading the story? That's the aspect of the audience I think about while writing this kind of fiction."

Ryan's creation of place is also fundamental. In Claustrophobia she uses the juxtaposition of Perth as a small, quiet city with the incredibly tense events which take place in her story to forge another layer of uneasiness.

"We grew up with a myth of Perth being a 'safe' place — bad things happened elsewhere, we were isolated and 'ordinary'. Of course none of that was ever really true," she says.

"Perth was never as innocent and quiet as we sometimes like to believe. On the outside it's sunny and feels squeaky clean but what goes on under the surface?"

As Ryan attests, the notion of marriage as a hotbed of betrayal, secrets and deception is a world away from her own experiences of domestic life, but this is precisely why she finds it to be such a fertile source for psychological suspense.

"In real life, I loathe deception and wrongdoing. I've been married to the same person for 20 years and we are comfortable with how well we know each other," she says of her partnership with poet John Kinsella.

"But in fiction you go to the edges, you imagine other lives; you ask 'What about gaps in knowledge, what do people take for granted?'."

The West Australian

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