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Kate Sidley

The peculiarity of the characters in Jen Thorpe's debut novel, The Peculiars, lies in their phobias - of crime, strangers, driving.

In the hope of overcoming them, they meet for treatment at the Centre for Improved Living.

Thorpe has a confident air, so it's a surprise to learn the idea for her book stemmed from her phobia of driving.

"My driving test was the first thing I'd failed. I [thought] driving was something I could not do. In Cape Town I managed not to drive, but when I moved to Joburg it was impossible. I had to sort it out."

Fear, Thorpe pointed out, takes us out of the world: "My characters know their fear is inhibiting them. Treatment is about trying to reintegrate back in the world. This is a book about connection. You'd think that shared experience would lead to connection, but while each character understands the feeling of fear, they can't understand the other's particular phobia, or be compassionate towards them."

While the characters work to overcome their fears and relationships form between them, Ruby, the centre director, is battling funding cuts and political machinations - familiar territory for Thorpe. She started the novel as a creative relief from the traumatic issues she dealt with while working at Rape Crisis. She now works as a researcher in parliament, focusing on women's rights and she's brought her interests into the novel.

The peculiarity of the characters in Jen Thorpe’s debut novel, The Peculiars, lies in their phobias – of crime, strangers, driving.

In the hope of overcoming them, they meet for treatment at the Centre for Improved Living.

Thorpe has a confident air, so it’s a surprise to learn the idea for her book stemmed from her phobia of driving.

“My driving test was the first thing I’d failed. I [thought] driving was something I could not do. In Cape Town I managed not to drive, but when I moved to Joburg it was impossible. I had to sort it out.”

Fear, Thorpe pointed out, takes us out of the world: “My characters know their fear is inhibiting them. Treatment is about trying to reintegrate back in the world. This is a book about connection. You’d think that shared experience would lead to connection, but while each character understands the feeling of fear, they can’t understand the other’s particular phobia, or be compassionate towards them.”

While the characters work to overcome their fears and relationships form between them, Ruby, the centre director, is battling funding cuts and political machinations – familiar territory for Thorpe. She started the novel as a creative relief from the traumatic issues she dealt with while working at Rape Crisis. She now works as a researcher in parliament, focusing on women’s rights and she’s brought her interests into the novel.

“I have feminist principles and particular feelings about social issues, but I don\’t want to be didactic. Funding for NGOs, mental health, these are things that trouble me, and I wanted to make them part of the story, something a character has to deal with. I start with the character and their story and put them under pressure to see how they react.”

There’s a lot less earnestness than you\’d expect, given the subject matter. It’s an easy and enjoyable read with gentle humour and good rendering of Cape Town – you know she knows the homeless dude on that street corner in Obs.

This is Thorpe’s first novel, but not her first book. My First Time – stories of women’s first-time experiences of love, sex, motherhood, friendship and more – grew out of a project from her time at Rape Crisis. “I saw how important it was for people to hear stories of other people who’d been through similar experiences. I e-mailed some women about their first experiences and got an amazing response which I put on a blog. We made a book in 2012.”

Thorpe is up early every morning to write before work, knowing that a day of writing research reports will have sapped her creative energy by evening. Novel number two is in the pipeline – readers can expect another compelling combination of social issues and good storytelling.

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