by Sue Orr
(Victoria University Press, $35)
Sue Orr's first novel, The Party Line (2015), was a coming-of-age story, notable for its honesty and humanity, realistic evocation of a past era and lovingly created, believable setting and characters. Loop Tracks is her second novel, set in Wellington, and shares many of the same characteristics.
The narrative moves smoothly between two time schemes. In the earlier, we meet 16-year-old Charlie, short for Charlotte, who has the misfortune to fall pregnant in 1978, when safe legal abortion was once again briefly unavailable in New Zealand. The Auckland clinic had been closed, not to reopen until 1980. Fictional Charlie (and thousands of real women) were forced to anticipate a lonely and expensive procedure on the other side of the Tasman.
Charlie has had sex only the once and believes, as many girls did then and possibly still do, that loss of virginity and fertilisation are mutually exclusive. Orr puts Charlie on an actual Pan Am flight that really was delayed and bases this part of her story on the real-life experience of a friend. During the delay Charlie gets off the plane and does not get back on it.
She "goes away", as we said then, gives birth to a son, and gives him up for adoption. This part of the action is lightly handled, perhaps because for the bulk of the book, set in 2019 and 2020, it is a long time in the past. When we meet Charlie again, she is in her late 50s, has not had any other children than the boy she gave away, but has had the care of teenage grandson Tommy since the time he was a preschooler.
Charlie's son Jim has had a difficult, loveless life; Tommy's mother is dead and Jim has dumped his unwanted child on the woman who was not able to keep him.
It seems the punishment of the gods continues to rain down — Tommy is autistic or at least on the spectrum. A bleak scenario — but in Orr's hands the subtleties of familial and blood connections are complex, challenging and inspirational.
The pandemic of 2020 throws the family into even closer proximity. Orr's characters squabble, fight, leave, come together, vote different ways in the 2020 election and confront the most difficult questions about their origins and the repercussions of immature decisions. Lockdown over, the joys of going out again into the city demonstrate Orr's love for the capital. Wellington is beautiful and vertiginous, the bucket fountain and Cuba St are affectionately described.
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As has been noted, times without number, we live in sensitive times. It could be that Orr risks castigation in this era of cancel culture, because the meta-narrative of Loop Tracks could be casually misinterpreted by those who are adopted or who have become adoptive parents. These days, adoption is seriously out of fashion. It is not difficult to hear bewildered voices: Is she saying that adoption leads to misery and drug addiction?
But a novel is not a novel without dramatic tension. Orr could not have shown us an easy solution to the calamity of being forced to give up a child, or to gloss over the heart-breaking permutations that may come afterwards. In final analysis, Loop Track is an elegant, delicately told, thoughtful story of triumph.
Reviewed by Stephanie Johnson
Stephanie Johnson's most recent books are the history/biography West Island: Five Twentieth Century New Zealanders in Australia (Otago University Press, 2019) and Everything Changes (RHNZ Vintage, 2021). A longer version of this review will appear on anzliterature.com on June 23.