Loop Tracks by Sue Orr (Victoria University Press, 2021), 336pp, $35
Attending a Catholic girls’ high school during the 70s, I vividly remember the shame, scurrilous gossip and fascination surrounding teen pregnancy. One girl in my year left school at sixteen because she was pregnant. There were whispers about girls ‘going to Sydney’ or being sent down country to stay with relatives and have the baby—in effect, exiled. The opening section of Sue Orr’s latest novel Loop Tracks captures this aspect of the times.
Drawing on the true story of a delayed flight to Sydney carrying women forced to seek an abortion in Australia, Orr places her teenage protagonist front and centre as she and two others wait nervously for take-off: ‘The first time I got on an aeroplane, I was sixteen years old and pregnant.’ While Renee and Brenda continue on to their respective fates, Charlie steps off the plane and so sparks a lifetime of guilt, lurking regret and self-recrimination.
Orr is very good at creating a nuanced past. This first part (of ten) concerning Charlie’s pregnancy and the birth of her baby is finely detailed, landing us firmly back in 1978, a time in which, the narrator reminds us, there is no internet or mobile phones. When Charlie is sent to the limbo of cousin Julie’s place in Napier—‘the whole six months reeked of abandonment’—she can’t even contact her friends back home, and is subjected to a laconic Correspondence School teacher called Bryan. On the plane the sense of distance and disorientation grows; there is an interesting juxtaposition of Princess Caroline of Monaco’s forthcoming wedding featured in a women’s magazine and the humiliation of Charlie’s predicament.
Charlie herself is a total innocent: ‘I’d never seen a tattoo on a girl my age before.’ She didn’t think you could get pregnant if you only had sex once. Her parents have also never flown anywhere and have saved hard to pay for the flight to Sydney. This nuclear family is naturally thrown into turmoil with Charlie’s pregnancy, and Charlie herself will grow into a woman whose life has been inexorably changed because of it.
The use of an older narrator looking back at the girl she once was provides a layer of context.
I can only watch the girl that I was. Sixteen, pregnant, with her head full of romance and brain yet to develop the parts that tether her to reality …
This opening section, framed by the adult narrator’s hindsight, establishes the parameters of the narrative, and later sections flash back to these events as the mature Charlie attempts to make sense of what happened (was it rape?), while she also tries to be honest to the people close to her.
Having initially made her mark as a short story writer, Orr now delivers a layered and complex second novel with Loop Tracks that moves from the personal past and into our present-day world with all its unknowns, in a general probing of identity. Her first novel, The Party Line (Vintage, 2015) carried a motif of peat fire signalling the underground forces at play within a rural community in 1972. Here, Orr makes good use of looping and repetitive patterns as the dominant motif, playing with ideas such as a performer using a loop pedal to create layered music, and the Spirograph drawings that her grandson made when he was young. Amusingly, Charlie’s current-day Zoom students have pre-recorded themselves looking studious on short, looping videos. Importantly, it’s all about looping back to the past—to the near-miss of an abortion, the teen pregnancy, the adoption of Charlie’s baby—and the trauma that is still resonating in the present.
This theme, examined from different angles, is held in balance in the narrative by the relationship between Charlie and her grandson Tommy, who was dropped on her doorstep at age four by his druggie father Jim (her now-adult adopted son). This mature voice is a more measured one, alive with anxiety for Tommy and how he will fare in the world: ‘I’ve spent a lifetime teaching him to read faces.’ When Tommy, now older, takes up with Jenna, Charlie is naturally concerned. Orr deftly depicts Charlie’s fears about Tommy joining Jenna’s social world, and when she might ask something of him. ‘She will think nothing of the reasonable asking, but the fine-nibbed pen inside the Spirograph wheel will slip, skate across the page. Smeared ink will ruin everything.’
A subtext seems to simmer along with Charlie’s anxiety: how much has Tommy’s character been shaped by his father? The loop has brought together Charlie and Tommy—and also brings us to this point in time when Tommy is eighteen and beginning to experience adult life. We wonder whether and how Tommy will find his own way; his path is not without hiccups and recriminations. Ultimately, Orr uses this relationship to question whether the loop will provide a cosy resolution to the past.
The loop connects also to Jim, who grew up without knowing his mother and later came looking for her, and who once hid drugs around her house and was busted by the police. He is a man without a moral compass. There is an awkward tension between Charlie and Jim around what he is bringing into the household. Again, we see how she has learned to read people when she says: ‘Tommy can’t see the jagged edges around the conversations, how they could so easily snag and tear apart.’ We loop back to Charlie’s anxiety for Tommy.
The character of Jim raises the spectre of an idea: Would it have been better if she really had had that abortion? Too many circumstances bring his own purpose into question. Take the time when Charlie caught teenage Jim having sex in her house with a schoolgirl—flashing Charlie back to her own past. The girl later died of an overdose in which Jim was possibly implicated—if not directly, then certainly through association. This instance is, for Charlie, a reminder that Jim is not somebody she knows, even though he is her son.
The burden of the unresolved past continues to torment Charlie as Tommy demands to know about his mother, and adult Jim about his father. What can she offer them, except the fact that she was only fifteen at the time and knew so little? At the time, innocently, she had talked herself into ‘being in love’ with the father, but this is a romantic construct of what was in reality a fleeting one-night stand. She doesn’t even know his name, and we flash back to young Charlie’s poignant attempts to find the father of her baby: ‘She is a girl too soon for the modern methods of tracking down a boy …’ And then there is the reframing of this early narrative. Was it rape? Charlie’s friend Adele believes so. When she learns Charlie’s version of events, Adele offers a different interpretation of what took place that night.
The narrative structure is based on then-and-now. In the now, Tommy and Jenna are ignorant of Jim’s past, while Charlie hovers anxiously in the middle like a parachute parent. There’s a feeling that she wants to make that past right, even though the pregnancy and adoption were hardly her fault. Yet in trying to protect Tommy, she is also suffocating him.
Meanwhile, Covid has landed and Charlie notes what the virus (fittingly) does best: ‘warps time, loops it over and around and through itself, etching invisible ink with each passing’. Such phrases show a thoughtful intelligence that takes us back to the main theme. Tempers flare, especially in lockdown, though occasionally in a way that seems opaque. In one difficult scene, Jenna accuses Tommy: ‘You say nothing meaningful.’ In a later scene Tommy furiously calls out Charlie over her attitude to the legalising of euthanasia, ‘Yeah. You don’t think. That’s the point.’ The divide is growing between them, hinting at generational missteps, though it looks awfully like that of a child attempting to move away from a clinging mother, seeking his own space. Jim’s presence doesn’t help, as Charlie notes darkly: ‘The weight of all our history—his, mine, Tommy’s and now Jenna’s—bears down on me.’
Tommy continues to dominate the narrative—or more specifically, his obsessions do. In lockdown he turns to mapping the coronavirus and creating graphs about assisted dying and, distressingly, succumbs to a pro-life group and takes his research interests into dark interpretations of abortion.
Charlie is dismayed by her grandson’s interests and, in her existential loneliness, happens upon a neighbour. They break into each other’s bubbles. It is a pleasing step into a possible future for her, a future in which she might relax and enjoy another’s company and even forget about Tommy for a while. Charlie’s relationship with the neighbour—‘a sweet, odd thing for odd times’—works to balance Tommy’s entrenched views and obstinate questioning of the ‘no womb/no say’ debate. We come to see again how the ‘ancient hurting’ of Charlie’s past continues to inform the present: it has now become a political debate within the family.
While Jim’s influence loops in and out of the mix, Charlie manages a resolution with this ‘bad egg’, though it is hard won. Perhaps they are simply too different to understand each other. This central loop of the story shows that there is power in speaking the truth, though it may not be strong enough to keep Jim close.
Ultimately, Charlie realises that she must accept the choices of those around her and come to terms with her own past. ‘Having spent my entire adult life subsumed by the guilt of giving birth versus not, the hard wiring was going to be difficult to untangle.’ It may not be a wholly satisfying position at the end, though perhaps it is a necessarily human one.
TINA SHAW is the author of numerous works of fiction for adults, YA and children. Her most recent novel is Ephemera (Cloud Ink Press, 2019).