A Change of Key by Adrienne Jansen (Escalator Press, 2018), 252 pp., $28
I love all the musics, but classical is my least familiar, so I wondered how I might go with Adrienne Jansen’s new novel, A Change of Key. I wasn’t even that fussed on the title, which seemed a little mundane. But music is joy, and Adrienne does good joy. Life mightn’t be flawless, but there’s music.
Using the perfect strategy of setting her story in a block of flats, Adrienne is able to show us rather than tell us (as the rules wisely decree) the lives of people who, like migratory birds, have somehow blown off course and found themselves in a cage with an open door, here at the end of the world. Their lives are rich in terms of lived experience rather than money, and political, financial and personal wind currents may prevent them from ever returning to their original place of departure. The narrative is told through the carefully plotted unfolding of the characters’ conversations and thoughts, and each short chapter is an opportunity to lay out more of the story, sometimes with a smidgeon of plot action.
A Change of Key isn’t some sort of fast-moving airport thriller, as the back cover blurb might lead you to believe, but there’s enough happening to provide some structure and to move the story along. There are brief appearances by KGB agents, people who may or may not be dead, angry Polish bookstore owners and, as destructively as anything else, there is the city council trying to raise the rents of people who are only barely scraping by. Always, always, the people are empowering themselves. Rising up through tiredness, loneliness, poverty and homesickness. There isn’t much help from anyone else. They are each other’s best resource, and this book is a celebration of solidarity.
Even though it’s written mainly about adults, this book gave me a YA fiction feeling, which was good, because it’s completely essential reading for all secondary school English classes. An opportunity to gain empathy and understanding for those who are new to our country wouldn’t go amiss for young people who’ve been here for longer, and others will see themselves or their families reflected in our literature for perhaps the first time. (There’s also a stand-alone prequel called The Score. English teachers, please add to cart.) The easy undemanding pace also makes it suitable for those who might be newish to the English language.
It’s hard to conceive that only thirty years ago it was unusual to find anyone Māori in a TV ad in this country. It’s not until wrongs are righted that we realise where our cultural mirror/screen was skewed in the first place, and well done to Adrienne for showing us the way to a better selfie with her advocacy for those who are first-generation New Zealanders. She has clearly done the hard yards: she’s a founder of the Porirua Language Project, now known as English Language Partners, which has gone on to provide English language tutoring to numerous immigrants across the country. She has also written and co-authored several other non-fiction books, bringing the stories of newer residents of this country to the fore.
The writing felt warm and caring; much, I imagine, like Adrienne in person. She manages to give space to a literal united nations of characters (assuming anyone still knows or cares what literal really means), and balances them well for a writer managing such a big cast. Every character is respected. There’s Marko from Bulgaria, Stefan from Portugal, Veronica and her son Joseph from Sudan, Singh from Punjab, Haider from Baghdad – and that’s just for warmups. Some characters occupy very little space, with some clearly from the previous book while hopefully others will blossom in the next. It all adds to the ‘co-existing in a very crowded room’ feel that comes with living in a block of flats.
Sometimes the emotional dynamic between the characters isn’t as complex as it could be, and possibly it has been difficult to keep the self out of some of those the author has fleshed out the most, such as Stefan and Marko. That’s always going to be tricky when writing of others, as we can only ever know other people’s experiences as stories, and we can only ever be aspects of ourselves. Sometimes voices and accents slip and don’t quite feel true. Still, this was written by someone who has taken the time to get to know these lives; someone who has seen the dishes in the council flat sink and appreciated how precious the small things on the shelf are. The tiny details of lives previously lived elsewhere, such as honey-gathering in Sudan, are lovingly recorded. Adrienne cares about these people who have come from far away, some of whom have experienced the most awful, unimaginable things yet still put a smile on their faces, while we stress out about first-world problems such as how we look in the mirror, or whether that’s the exact colour we ordered when our thingy from the Warehouse arrives in the mail.
Every character has their story, and even though I didn’t think they always acted consistently with their personality (such as when the very considerate, kind and even-tempered Stefan has a spit at Marko late in the book), they all had beautifully detailed pasts, laid out like carefully threaded magic carpets. And if there’s one emotion Adrienne conveys well, it’s longing for the home that can never be returned to. She gave the bad man enough backstory to draw my empathy to him, and when he got what bad men deserve, I felt, well, bad for him. Still, Adrienne pulled that through for me in the end too, just when I was about to protest unfair. No one is black or white; every character has shades of grey. (And this time the meaning isn’t literal.)
The most affecting line in this story for me was the last line of the penultimate chapter: ‘Let’s go home.’ You only have to remember how Auckland’s Epsom used to be the stamping ground of the wealthy white – those same houses are now home to predominantly Asian families – to know how tides of people swirl and flow. I felt a sense of wonder about that, and about the speed of change, when I found myself in an Epsom restaurant a while ago and there was no English menu at all. Home is a temporary concept. Nothing can be taken for granted. Maybe one day you will find yourself in changed circumstances, perhaps in a foreign land, serving burgers at the McDonald’s that no doubt exists there, and making more money for someone else than you do for yourself. Remember not to be rude to your taxi driver: who knows whether they might jump through and over all of our country’s hoops and hurdles to practising their former career of neurosurgery, and be operating on your brain in a few years’ time? Perhaps your face will have been memorable.
Naturally Adrienne, because she does good joy, has a joyous, upbeat ending, but she also has the good sense to avoid making everything in the garden lovely. She knows that’s not how life is, especially when you’re an immigrant. She does, however, scatter seeds of hope for those who don’t get to take away a happy ever after. Hard work and better luck can get them there, and they know that. Life is never perfect, but there is music, and there is hope. This is a simple, well-written book, and it will gently leave your heart a bigger, wider place. These are our stories, because we all live in this country together. So get your manaakitanga on, Aotearoa/New Zealand. And good work, Adrienne. Your life’s work and writing is providing a karanga to welcome the new people forward.
ALICE TAWHAI is a New Zealand writer who has another day job and a life full of people and passions. She chooses not to share her personal life with those who are not part of it.