Loop Tracks by Sue Orr – 2021

Charlie Lowry was fifteen-years-old in the late seventies – full of dreams and fantasies, and concerns about her peeling toenail varnish. She wanted boys to notice her, and they sometimes did, but for her fascination with words – she was always one for the funny pun – they didn’t see her potential for glamorous romance. One night at a party, a boy did notice her – and she thought she had achieved her dream. But instead, she found herself in a situation that could only be resolved by a quick trip to Sydney, or by her ‘going up North for a while’.

Many years later Charlie is living in Wellington with her grandson, Tommy. She has given up on her wish to study and apply her flair for linguistics, due to experiencing bouts of vocal disfunction. She teaches five-year-olds at a local school. The realisation that Tommy has formed a relationship with a fellow maths student at university, and the unexpected return of her son, Jim, leads Charlie to reassess her life. She considers what information she has shared with her son and grandson, and whether it is time to reveal more. And also whether it is time to be honest with herself about her traumatic past.

If all this sounds a bit heavy going, it isn’t – Loop tracks is honest, compassionate, and compellingly written. It look at generational relationships. It considers what power the State has to interfere in an individual’s life decisions – whether those be decisions a woman makes about her body, or about the agency of some to choose to end their own lives. It considers what right males have to put young girls into situations they have no ability to manage – we see the power to do so developing in the five-year-old bullies in Charlie’s class. And Loop tracks eventually confronts the State’s power to curtail freedoms to protect citizens from a deadly virus, and the obligation of individuals to comply. It highlights the decisions, sometimes immediate, spontaneous, and unconsidered, that send lives on paths that might otherwise have been avoided or missed.

In one section of the book, Charlie goes back to accompany her younger self as her mother takes her to the doctor, her mother suspecting Charlie is pregnant, Charlie thinking that is ridiculous. The reader confronts the absolute naivety of the young Charlie, how impossible for her to relevantly answer her father’s plea: “What were you thinking, Charlie?” Charlie finds herself on a flight bound for Sydney, there being few options for safe abortion in Aotearoa in 1978. Her parents have fallen into debt to fund the trip – her mother leaves the airport jealous of her daughter’s chance of an overseas flight. The reason Charlie makes her decision to leave the plane on the tarmac is pathetic, as in full of pathos – and it is a decision with life-long consequences.

Jim is a monster in many ways, he is a drug peddlar, a manipulator, he carries memories of the bodies of dead young women. Jim is a reason for Charlie to regret her decision to get off the plane. Jim’s son Tommy – abandoned by Jim as a child – is a reason for her to celebrate that same decision. Tommy is beautiful and a wonder to Charlie. He is a mathematician and “… she’s a words girl. Numbers are not her thing.” Tommy is socially awkward and has no filter to his emotions: “he’s so literal, people find that difficult”. He has sudden bouts of fury: “Rage, reflection, remorse. That’s the order, the only way he can process the hard stuff.” Charlie feels she must protect Tommy until someone else can take over. Despite the sacrifices she has made for him, she knows Tommy has no empathy for her – he is brutally judgemental.

Jenna is Tommy’s friend. Her sister, Suzie, plays Loop Track music. Tommy is entranced by the building repetition of Suzie’s music the way he was, and still is, absorbed by Charlie’s old Spirograph machine. Suzie, who we never meet, also knows Jim – and Jim’s dark shadow grows over Charlie’s family. Charlie’s friend and workmate, Adele, is a moderating element – pointing out to Charlie that she is prone to spying on Tommy and Jenna; that she is still trying to control Tommy’s decisions; that she seems not to be acknowledging the reality of what happened to her in 1978.

The arrival of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown and the Euthanasia Referendum of the same year, pulls the novel into tight focus. Tommy tracks the outbreak, and becomes engrossed in arguments about his responsibilities to protect life at both ends of the life cycle. And his logical un-empathic approach is a challenge to Charlie and her beliefs. The isolation of lockdown (she is both with and apart from Tommy) allows Charlie to become aware that she is lonely, she longs for “the hot rush of human touch”. Lockdown provides yet another set of opportunities for Charlie, and decisions that will either fulfil or deny those opportunities.

Loop tracks is a brutal book in many ways, but it glows with humanity. It suggests the importance of being honest about memory, about beliefs. It emphasises being kind to yourself, but also the importance of thinking beyond yourself when considering the decisions you make and the paths you choose. A very powerful Aotearoa read.                

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