Published by Victoria University Press, NZRRP $35.00
If you Google Loop Track, the first page of results is now, understandably, about the new novel Loop Tracks from Wellington novelist, Sue Orr. The next page takes us to walking and tramping websites: Veronica Loop Track, Mangamate Loop Track, Lindemann Loop Track. A trail that loops around, neverending. If you don’t notice the exit, you might loop forever, retreading the same ground, making the same mistakes; and although on each rotation things may be slightly different, you aren’t able to move to a new direction.
A contemporary, realist novel, Loop Tracks introduces us to naive, dreamy, sixteen-year-old Charlie. She’s pregnant, in the worst year to be pregnant, 1978. The Auckland Abortion Clinic has been forced to close. Charlie won’t – can’t – give her parents the name of the boy, and they extend themselves in many ways to arrange a flight to Sydney, so Charlie can access an abortion.
The plane is delayed. It sits on the runway for hours. Hungry and nauseous, Charlie exits the plane and misses her appointment. She must go away, hide herself, and when the baby is born, she’s not given the opportunity to hold him, to even see him, before he’s taken to his adoptive parents. They name him Jim, and Charlie’s expected to return to life as though nothing has happened.
The novel then shifts to present day Charlie, living in Wellington with her grandson, Tommy, a neurodivergent teen in his first year at University. Due to her past trauma, Charlie is stuck deep within her track, a behavioural groove. Orr uses subtle imagery to demonstrate this throughout the novel, in passages like this: ‘On circular knitting needles it’s possible to lose sight of where one round ends and the next begins. It’s important to mark the spot, and I’ve done that. I’ve knitted to the little purple marker, but instead of moving to the next line of the pattern I’ve repeated the same round, over and over, over and over.’
The novel sifts between 1978 and 2020 after that, each year’s political and social landscape informing the other. The safe and comfortable routine Charlie and Tommy have cocooned themselves in begins to unravel: first, with the arrival of confident and captivating Jenna. She introduces Tommy to her musician sister and her loop track music that he finds mathematically hypnotising, but it’s her unsettling questions about Tommy’s father that starts to knock Charlie out of her groove. And then: Level 4 Lockdown.
Lockdown. Many novelists have expressed uncertainty about how to incorporate the pandemic in their novel, yet Orr seems to have sensed immediately how it would enhance her novel. In the quiet of her home, Charlie begins to reconsider her past and her present. She comes to understand her parents in a new way, and to forgive herself. It’s a time of reflection. As she revisits her past, Charlie is able to cast new meaning over the layers of old meaning. Familiar memories are revised to create original ideas. She’s forced to recast the narrative of her life. She starts smoking again, finds unexpected desire. The reawakening of Charlie through this forced departure from her safe and sheltered normal is satisfying, and even when she’s snooping through someone else’s things like a nosy child, you can’t help but like her.
Loop Tracks delves into bioethical issues like abortion, adoption, euthanasia, and the COVID-19 restrictions placed on New Zealanders during the 2020 lockdowns. Generational and subjective differences come into play as the characters discuss these issues, and how they believe they should be regulated. Orr places the characters under pressure, giving these issues weight and urgency. Loop Tracks is a confined space in which to consider the value of life, our own and others. How much agency should we have over our own lives? How many freedoms should we reasonably divest in order for another to live? Of course, this is a balancing act we have deliberated over for centuries, and in 2020 we were asked to dismantle our ideas about what our lives should be in order to help others.
Orr’s prose is both dry and playful, and some sections when Charlie is reflecting on herself as a young woman break into poetry. Charlie’s obsession with words gives the reader an opportunity to examine meaning and word choice throughout the work. Both style and rhythm infuse the novel with a brilliant sense of New Zealand, and Orr interrogates issues close to our hearts. Secrets and shame, family and lovers, Loop Tracks scoops all this and more into its orbit, creating a gripping portrait of a woman’s life, the harm she’s caused, the hurt she’s suffered; her mistakes, her glories, her oft-repeated wrongs. A family drama and a social commentary, it’s a book that will repeat over and over in your mind even after the final page has been read.