27-year old Nazma Matthews has a debilitating fear of driving. No amount of lessons can stop her irrational phobia, which means she’s stuck managing her father’s kiosk at a Metrorail station in Cape Town. Her dreams of becoming pastry chef are as flaky as the butter croissants she longs to bake.
30-year old Sam Edwards has scelerophobia – fear of bad men, robbers and thieves. After his mother was robbed outside her home, Sam installs high-tech alarm systems in every room of his house, checking and double checking them, to insulate himself from criminals, and the rest of the world.
The two meet when they both sign up for a study at the Centre for Improved Living, to help a group of peculiar misfits with crippling phobias. Not only do Sam and Nazma have to try and let go of their fears, they need to navigate the treacherous and dangerous path of two people developing the feels for one another.
The Centre’s odd director, Ruby (who has a predilection for making random animal noises, and who is obsessed with scratching her scalp), has her own fears, including that the Ministry for Mental Wellbeing might cut their funding. (Wouldn’t it be marvellously progressive of government if it had such a ministry?)
Every chapter has a different bizarre phobia as its subheading, which loosely describes the events of that chapter. Athazagoraphobia: fear of being forgotten. Hypengyophobia: fear of responsibility. Politicophobia: fear of politicians (the national fear of South Africans perhaps?).
Jen Thorpe’s light hearted debut novel not only makes astute observations about people and human nature in general, its quirky take on Cape Town and the city’s idiosyncrasies are as amusing as her characters. This story is not just about the protagonists facing their own fears, but also asks readers to confront their own inhibitions.
The author is well-versed in the dealing with social issues. She’s a researcher and writer who focuses on women’s rights, and the battles that face non-profit organisations particularly when it comes to funding, underlie the troubles faced by the Centre in her novel. Mental illness in particular, is a largely ignored subset of illnesses and social issues, as illustrated by the battle of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s struggle to stay afloat, and the book taps into that.
The Peculiars is like a bowl of soup – warm, familiar, and comforting. With the winter months upon us, it’s the perfect read to curl up with on a chilly day with a cuppa and a blanket.
“Nazma was in denial about several things, one of which was that working at the kiosk was going to become her full-time job. It was supposed to be a temporary job until she founds a real one, but she had worked there almost every day for the past three months. She wanted to be a pasty chef, and spending here days in the kiosk with its stale food was like being an artist and having to do colouring by numbers. But she had scared herself out of possibly ever being able to get a proper job. In this city – in any city in South Africa – you had to be able to drive. Transport fascism had doomed her to a life of working for her parents.
To keep herself busy Nazma conducted daily kiosk experiments. This morning it was an exercise in measurement. She was balanced on tip toe, on her left foot, with the smell of curry spices and cigarettes drifting into her nostrils, tickling the hairs and reminding her brain where she was – in a tiny train-station kiosk waiting for her world to change…
Another source of dismay inside the kiosk was the food. Abigail, Nazma’s mother, told those outside the bars that the baked goods, normally pies or samoosas or sausage rolls, were made fresh every day. Abigail’s earnest voice, bovine eyes and the low prices of the pies allowed customers to convince themselves that she was telling the truth. Technically, on Mondays and Thursdays, she was. On the other five days of the week they were freshly reheated…”
Rating: 3½ out of 5
The Peculiars is published by Penguin.