Loop Tracks by Sue Orr
Novels that have recurring themes and motifs are great when you spot the trails running through the narrative. In some ways they are even better when you don’t spot all of these at once. When you only notice later, as you ponder what you read or think about a review.
‘Loop Tracks’ is on one of those novels. For Kiwis loop tracks are things we walk, where the native bush can sometimes be deceptive and disorientating, where we need marked trails to bring us back to where we started. There are plenty of looping stories in here, and we end fittingly with a couple selecting a loop track for their walk in the Wellington bush. The novel also references that seventies toy, the Spirograph, with the bigger and smaller circles drawing patterns of ever-increasing intricacy on the paper. Taken a step further, the whole book is full of threads that constantly loop back on themselves.
Charlie is our central character. We start with her at fifteen and sixteen, ending with her in her late fifties. It is around her life that we circle. The whole book hinges on a mistake at fifteen. A few minutes in the back seat of a red Vauxhall and the lifelong consequences.
In 1978, when our story begins, Charlie is the fifteen-year-old girl who gets pregnant. Politicians have forced the closure of abortion clinics in the country and the only safe way to get a termination is by travelling to Sydney. Charlie waits in the plane at Auckland airport, alongside two others on the flight for the same reason. The flight is delayed. Mechanical problems keep them waiting on the tarmac until at last, Charlie gets off the plane and decides upon a different course.
Her pregnancy will be a work of concealment. She has already been sent to a different doctor, as her mother seeks to hide from the shame that is bound to follow. More the mother’s shame than Charlie’s. Soon she is sent away to a distant ‘friend’ in Napier, only to return six months later as if nothing had happened. We are gradually led to a powerful scene at the hospital where the girl who has just given birth never gets to see the child. Another family takes him away and is relieved at the thought that the young mother will never know their names, or that of the boy they call James.
Fast forward to contemporary times. Middle-aged Charlie is living in Wellington with her eighteen-year-old grandson Tom. Her lost son’s son. Tom has started at university and is about to go on a first date. Raised alone by his grandmother, he has been protected from past facts and the difficulties of anxiety and lack of empathy that plague someone on the Asperger’s spectrum. Not everyone gets Tom, but that lack of empathy is yet another of the big plot loops.
As the story drives forwards we assemble the facts from the past. How Charlie’s eighteen-year-old son Jim, not far from becoming the father of Tom, invaded his mother’s life once more. Somehow since she last almost saw him, he has turned bad. Now he terrorises his mother and uses her house to make and sell drugs. Eventually, after Charlie finds him having sex with a schoolgirl he has plied with drugs, she turns him over to the police and her life is free from him once more. Right up to the day that he turns up and dumps his four-year old son, Tom, on her. It is a duty she willingly accepts.
I could go on and on, following the twists, the looping themes, but that would spoil all that the book has to offer. Rarely do I read of book of fiction that confronts so many questions and issues. Without deploying too many spoilers, the burning question that lingers, once you know that Tom’s young mother committed suicide soon after his birth and that Jim’s schoolgirl victim was found dead from an overdose, is what a difference staying on the flight to Sydney could have made. Two young women might not have died, but Charlie would not have been able to raise Tom. As New Zealand wrestles with the arrival of COVID and a referendum on drugs and euthanasia approaches, the protagonists are wrapped in layers of meaning and significance.
This is a stunning novel. At times both humorous and bleak, there are so many loops to find. Some are obvious, others take days and weeks to reveal themselves. A novel that keeps on giving.
Reviewed by Marcus Hobson
Victoria University Press RRP $35