The Party Line by Sue Orr (Vintage/Random House NZ, 2015), 249 pp., $38
As Nicola Walker, 54, is driving from Auckland across the Hauraki Plains to attend a funeral, she is besieged by memories and haunted by the voice and presence of her dead mother, Joy.
The journey takes her past some scenes of horror, offering reminders of death, violence and police corruption. En route she ‘might’ pass ‘the corrugated-iron shed where, once, a crazed man cut off the hands of his girlfriend with a sword’. At Pukekawa Nicola recalls the 1970 double murder of Jeanette and Harvey Crewe and speculates about their daughter, baby Rochelle, left in her cot after her parents were killed, but fed by persons unknown so that she might survive.
Nicola also remembers how her mother once struck her across the face. It was her mother’s engagement ring, turned inward, that cut her cheek. Now the ill-fitting ring belongs to Nicola: ‘Why’d you hit me?’ she hears her thirteen-year-old Nickie-self say.’ Her mother responds: ‘Everyone hit their kids back then. Didn’t do any harm. Didn’t do you any harm.’ Nicola drives on, ‘listening to the instructions from Tomtom, slowing to look at road signs’. It is 2014.
So begins The Party Line. The mood is set for dark deeds. Is this to be a tale in the New Zealand gothic tradition?
Author Sue Orr made an impressive debut in 2008 winning the Lilian Ida Smith award with the short story collection Etiquette for a Dinner Party. (One story from this publication, ‘Gypsy Day’, provided the concept for this novel.) Three years later she published From Under the Overcoat, an ambitious collection that artfully paired classic tales from trailblazer short story writers like Mansfield, Joyce and Gogol with stories set in contemporary New Zealand.
Having established her facility with language, characters and dialogue, Orr has produced a novel, set largely in 1972 rural New Zealand, and focused on the relationship of two 12-year-old girls, one the newcomer, Gabrielle Baxter, and the other Nickie (Nicola) the local whose parents are Joy and Eugene Walker. The district and its inhabitants, along with its customs and prejudices, are more than a backdrop; they are the stuff of the novel. We learn too about Gabrielle’s mother who has recently died of cancer and Ian, her father, who has bluffed his way into a sharemilker’s job on the farm of Jack and Audrey Gilbert.
The Seventies events are framed by the adult Nicola’s return to the region of her childhood to attend the funeral of Josephine Janssen, a former sharemilker, who with her husband Hans purchased the Walker’s dairy farm 20 years before.
A feature of life in Fenward in the 1970s is the eponymous party line, the shared access to telecommunications that seems preposterous in the twenty-first century when an individual can carry in her pocket a phone that cunningly produces the illusion, if not the reality, of privacy. The party line has its own etiquette and pitfalls. Jack warns Ian: ‘You’ll have to remind her you’re on a party line. It’s all party lines around here. She’ll piss everyone off if she sits on the phone all night.’
And then there is the need to monitor the clicks that betray the presence of Mrs Shanks, the operator, or an eavesdropping neighbour. Everyone knows that sometimes it is better to deliver a message in person. But when there’s a fire the party line proves a great vehicle for mass communication.
At the price of personal privacy, the party line maintained the fabric of the community, whereas now a mobile phone would seem to pull it apart, connecting pairs of individuals but destroying cohesion. While it exaggerated the incestuous, nosey-parker, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses aspects of a small rural community, it provided a kind of metaphor for its social connectedness.
But the party line proves incidental to the story of the newcomers, Ian Baxter and daughter Gabrielle, traumatised by death and loss, entering a closed society. Orr tells her story from the third-person points of view of Nickie Walker, Joy Walker and Ian Baxter, all characters with limitations and blind spots. This feature of the novel sometimes proves unsatisfactory. Ian, stunned by grief and feeling his way in Fenward, offers few insights into the whys and hows of the narrative events. He is barely aware of his daughter’s reality. Nickie Walker is a 12-year-old, swept along by her admiration for her new friend Gabrielle, and lacks experience of the world outside her community. It falls to her mother Joy to present a more comprehensive picture of events. Sadly, she proves hard to like. We know already that she struck her daughter across the face, and I for one was inclined to distrust her.
Even so, Joy Walker is presented as a complex character and she is the main adult storyteller whose voice leads the reader through the narrative. Having lost her brother in a car accident when he hit one of Jack Gilbert’s straying cows years before, she has an axe to grind. She is caught up in family and community responsibilities and, having ignored Audrey Gilbert’s conspicuous bruises for years, finally overcomes inertia and attempts to reach out to her neighbour.
However, it is the men who hold sway in Fenward, and perhaps by extension in wider New Zealand. Joy’s husband, Eugene, thinks Jack Gilbert has ‘a lot on his plate’. He adds definitively, ‘He’s not a bad bugger, he’s alright.’
Joy sees her impotence when Eugene clings to his interpretation of Jack’s death: ‘She couldn’t call it menace, the tone in her husband’s voice, but she sensed the warning, clear and final.’
The conversations that the older Nicola has with her mother’s ghost as she drives to the funeral provide an opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in the story:
‘I never really understood why I wasn’t allowed to go to Jack Gilbert’s funeral. You never explained.’
… ‘It was your father who said no. He wanted to keep you away from it all …’
Nickie Walker is also a storyteller, but she and Gabrielle Baxter in their dialogue and actions seem to be unlikely 12-year-old children of the decade. With their use of such terms as ‘cool’ they sound more contemporary; but more than that minor gripe, their conversation sounds adult or at least mid-teen: ‘“Education is just as important as Calf Club Day,” said Gabrielle. “If not more so”’, and, ‘“We’ve got to take a comprehensive view of this,” said Gabrielle.’
Whereas one might expect a motherless 12-year-old to be vulnerable, Gabrielle, however misguided, is supremely confident. When she takes on adults, she has a plan: to confuse and manipulate the parish priest with her surprising knowledge of the Bible; to prove a point about the treatment of bobby calves; to publicly shame Jack Gilbert. She appears a stronger personality than her father, is demonstrably stronger than Nickie, and grown men fear her for all that she is a child, and a child damaged by her mother’s illness and death. Gabrielle is the heart of the story and the point of Orr’s novel. It is a pity she slips away at the end and is lost.
The Party Line paints a grim picture of New Zealand life in the 1970s, but it is not unbelievable. In that decade I experienced the reluctance of a small community to allow outsiders to establish themselves comfortably in their midst. Thankfully, there were some independent thinkers who embraced change and made us welcome, but they were few. It was the decade when male intransigence made its last (largely futile) stand against sexual equality and the tolerance of difference in every field of life in this country.
This is a novel of unease and its events disturb the reader. This is not a criticism. Orr writes about a serious topic with deceptive simplicity, avoiding sentimentality or overstatement. Adults, she seems to be saying, fail children through their cowardice.
However, something disappointed me, something was lacking in the end. I wanted more adult insight into the events, but who could provide it? Only Joy. The ghost of Joy might have provided some reflection on what happened in Fenward that winter. Joy was on her own journey and she came to be disgusted with her husband and his ‘mates’ when they made their move to purchase the Gilbert farm. Confronting him was futile and invited violence. Nicola was not impressed by her mother’s stand but rather was upset to see her parents fighting.
She had moved on from Gabrielle: ‘(S)he didn’t actually think a lot about Gabrielle these days.’ Gabrielle had no advocate.
The grown-up Nicola’s attendance at Josephine’s funeral might have provided some closure, and perhaps it did for her. But for the reader it raises more questions. Audrey has been transformed, almost transfigured. She acknowledges that Joy tried to help her but concedes that she ‘chased her away’: ‘I was very busy that day, household chores and whatnot.’
Is she as deluded as ever? Nicola leaves the funeral as unilluminated as the reader.
These criticisms aside, The Party Line is courageous in presenting an accurate picture of what we were. Sue Orr has a light touch and leaves the reader with some thinking to do.
CHRISTINE JOHNSTON is a Dunedin-based novelist, short story writer and reviewer.