The moment when a 15-year-old girl named Charlotte (Charlie) decides to lose her virginity feels less a decision than submission to the laws of adolescent gravity. She’s drunk, sitting by the fire at an illicit outdoor party, when an older boy takes her hand. The act takes place on the back seat of his red Vauxhall. Charlie does not know his name and only sees the boy once again, and then in passing.
Sue Orr’s new novel, Loop Tracks, opens in Wellington, New Zealand, early in 1978. A lingering primness and terror of social ostracisation means Charlie’s pregnancy is greeted with anguish by her parents. The girl is simply mystified. She’d been told you couldn’t conceive the first time. Charlie’s parents borrow money to pay for a termination in Sydney. Delayed on the runway under the care of the Sisters Overseas Service, an organisation set up to help women get safe, legal abortions, the girl has a change of heart and disembarks.
Loop Tracks is the story of the repercussions that follow from that spasm of defiance. But as the title suggests, the novel does not proceed in any orderly chronological way. It circles back and forward in time, via a series of narrative swoops that repeat but only partially overlap. It’s perfectly designed for a character who is obliged to revisit her past again and again in light of current events, digging deeper each time, eking truth from denial, memory from traumatic event.
Loop Tracks yields its secrets with reluctance and no little human hurt. Our compassion for Charlie – a prickly involute who cannot help but spy on her grandson and his new girlfriend, and a woman for whom long non-disclosure has hardened into a blockage at once physical and psychological – grows as we become aware of how little she has granted herself over time.
The result is a novel of modest, domestic scale, freighted with outsized emotional intensity. The suburban stillness of its setting – the latter sections of which unfold during pandemic lockdown – allows the significance of past events to resonate loudly.
Orr brings wisdom as well as craft to her fiction. Her sentences are weighed to the last syllable, and her characters’ voices are shaped by humour, psychological acuity and an honesty that is painfully raw.
I can think of few writers who match her quiet moral authority – and none at all who wield that authority with such generosity and absence of judgement. Loop Tracks is a novel to shake Australian readers out of our parochial ignorance of writing from across the Tasman, the sort of achievement that local authors should be aspiring to.
Upswell, 336pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 19, 2022 as "Loop Tracks, Sue Orr".
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