Sue Orr's short stories are marked by crafted, often crafty, plots and an engaging subversiveness of tone. One of those stories is the genesis of this first novel, a narrative of conflict and concealment in the small Hauraki Plains community of Fenward.
It's the 1970s. Sharemilkers are on the move, as they are most years, looking for work and a decent share of profits. The dairy farmers call it Gypsy Day, when utes are on the move crammed with "sofas, fridges, beds, kids, dogs".
Two such arrivals are rawly-widowed Ian Baxter and highly gorgeous 13-year-old Gabrielle. She and farmer's daughter Nickie begin an intense, ephemeral friendship. They're authentically half-formed young humans: precocious, innocent, devious, idealistic. They still write childish addresses on a birthday card, experiment wildly with lipstick.
Through a farmhouse window, they become inadvertent witnesses to savagery. When they try to report it, they jolt against an adult world which believes that what goes on in other people's homes is nobody else's business.
Incomprehension and denial bring building tension. The long, burning summer swells. You wait for something to break wide open, which it duly does, with revelations, feeding eels, subterranean and symbolic peat fire, plus a rather pendulous coda.
We get all the facets of an apparently united, apparently contented country settlement: PTA cookbook; New Year's dance with geriatric musos; local hall with Zip and big stainless steel teapot; anxiety over keeping the school's second classroom.
And we get a rich range of identities: parsimonious, brutish farmer; tarty teenager (she has pierced ears!); pixie-faced wife with bruises all over her; new sharemilker with pain "so strong, he expected his heart to stumble, then stop".
It's no rural idyll. Starved cows gorge desperately on rotten hay. Clotheslines drag in the mud. A calf is clubbed to death. Domestic and sexual violence bubble to the surface.
Domestic motifs also feature. Mothers rebuke, daughters sulk, fathers evade. Legs and skin thicken. Each generation gets a wryly sympathetic hearing.
There is gallows humour and Kiwi Gothic. A darkly droll Calf Club Day and a nocturnal laundry habit make memorable scenes. You'll be reminded of Fiona Kidman, R.H. Morrieson - Maurice Shadbolt even, but it's always the author's own voice that speaks.
It seems a while since rural New Zealand made a strong showing in our fiction. Orr does it in this forceful, sinewy story. Plot and character rule. Style is sturdy, with just a few outcrops of adjectives. She gets the teenage tone just right.
Sit down with this only when you have time to spare. You'll be held.
The Party Line
by Sue Orr