This is the speech I gave to launch Sue Orr’s new novel at the Women’s Bookshop. It was a packed room with many novelists and poets present. Such support.
Sue’s debut novel is pitch perfect. It reminded me of why I loved reviewing fiction for the NZ Herald so much. I was delighted to be invited to launch The Party Line, this utterly perfect book, of a dear friend and a fellow Penguin Random House author. Then to open my pristine copy and discover it was dedicated to me was so very moving. Thank you!
I got to see a near final draft of the ms and was captivated at every level by the power of Sue’s narrative. Even when you enter a world of flickering and uncertain light and dark such as this, you enter the joy of narrative — what story gifts us as readers. To read the published book, was to read afresh, and as I read over the weekend, everything else faded to dim (hanging out the washing, feeding the cats, answering emails). I just wanted to read in one slow gulp –and that is what I did.
This is the kind of novel that a reviewer could so easily diminish the effect of by giving away plot and character twists. Instead I want to share four reading pleasures this book gave me.
Firstly, the narrative is so surely anchored in a particular place and time, nostalgically so, for someone of my age. The judicious degree of detail renders both time and place vitally present: seersucker shorts, Happen In, the click of the eavesdropper on the party line, 4711 perfume, a candlewick bedspread, handkerchiefs, sharemilkers on the move, the paddock, getting in the hay, big brown bottles of beer.
Secondly, and most importantly, the characters resist the narrow confines of ink and paper and become seemingly real – and in that provisional realness expand to the point they affect you on a deep level. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, daughters. It is as though all roads lead to character in The Party Line: dialogue, plot, setting, turning points, epiphanies. Take any character, teenage Gabrielle coming to terms with the loss of her mother, or Joy facing brittle lines of communication with her daughter, Sue’s characters, all of them, ache with flaws, vulnerabilities, strengths. How one lives and loves and loses. So much of what we experience, have experienced and will experience defies words – yet this novel nails the kaleidoscopic, gut-wrenching, grey routine, survival instincts, good intentions, misguided ignorance, symphonic highs, comatosing lows, elusive dreams, startling courage, misread difference, kindness, meanness, rebelliousness, conformity, silence as a form of collusion or consent, the make do and the make believe of what it means to be human. These characters got to me. I felt them puncture and punctuate my heart rhythm. They startled me and they cajoled me. And what made the human complexity matter so very much, was the way they grew out of Sue’s lovingly tended sense of time and place.
Thirdly, while the narrative embeds you in the lure of its inhabited world – as you absorb character, place and event – this too is a novel of ideas. The way ideas ferment in the cracks and overlaps. There is the pervading notion of eavesdropping/seeing what one oughtn’t. The architecture of tight-knit communities. Gender roles. Human behaviour in the light of human error. Our ability to misread and misjudge human difference. Hierarchies with misplaced power.
Fourthly, this is a novel beautifully crafted in the light of structure but also at the level of the sentence. Each sentence, a honeyed fluency. Economical. For example:
‘Gabrielle Baxter was all butter voice, and butter hair and butterflies.’
‘She couldn’t call it menace, the tone in her husband’s voice, but she sensed the warning, clear and final.’
‘The pile of white linen spilled over the top of the basket at Audrey’s feet.’
If you scan the last few decades of NZ fiction, I am not sure how many novels have buried roots in the rural, in the back blocks, the peat paddocks, the farm kitchen, the country lanes and the local hall. That The Party Line is a novel of a farming community, of small town NZ, is to be celebrated. That the novel returns you to the world rejuvenated, a little transformed, is because this one small part of the world rendered in fictional form illuminates that which is real both past and present. It makes you think and it makes you feel. Not all novels do this. You feel like you have been the eavesdropper, seen what ought not to be seen, head and heart shaken apart, so that everybody near you and everybody at a distance seems acutely alive and precious. This is an astonishing novel, not in a big brash show off way, but in an intimate and empathetic way. I am delighted to declare it launched!