The Party Line
These two novels consider two very different communities back in the 1970s and 80s. Much of it will be familiar territory. They are both concerned, in different ways, with how the past can impact on one’s future.
The Predictions, Bianca Zander’s second novel, is set over a decade and follows Poppy from her upbringing on a Coromandel commune to London and marriage to childhood sweetheart Lukas. Gaialands in the 70s is idealistic and the seven children of the commune are raised by the whole group. It is, in effect, an experiment in parenting. With the arrival of flamboyant hippie Shakti, change is introduced to the commune, including a ritual in which Shakti stage-manages “predictions” for each of the teenage children. As if she has been handed her fate, Poppy is shaken by what she reads: “In a faraway land your true love waits … But your womb shall bear only sorrow.” It’s obvious that such a prediction will skew Poppy’s future. And, meanwhile, the commune is starting to unravel when one of the teenagers disappears.
Zander taps into the zeitgeist of the late 70s and 80s: women are into consciousness-raising; Lukas dreams of being in a band, and London is the place to be; both he and Poppy lose their innocence through a lifestyle of drugs (for him) and nightclubbing (for her). When Poppy leaves Lukas and returns to New Zealand with her baby, she comes to realise that Gaialands isn’t quite the paradise she had once thought it – the food is horrible, the huts leak, and the women want to share her baby.
The sea changes in Poppy’s and Lukas’s relationship are nicely nuanced, and we sense her frustration as he goes on tour with the band while she stays at home with the baby. The prophecy means that she is obsessed with keeping her baby safe. And is Lukas really the man she is destined to love? In the end, Poppy finds out the truth behind the prediction, and realises the power it has had over her. After all that has happened, she finally has a chance to really find herself.
In The Party Line, Sue Orr’s first long-form work, Nickie Walker is driving back to the Waikato rural area in which she grew up to attend a funeral, and dwelling on events that took place in 1972. The title refers not to a political party, but to that obsolete telephone system of the 1960s and 70s in which a small community shares the same line, news and gossip being rapidly disseminated via eavesdropping. The party line plays an integral role in this novel about the complicity of a small community in ignoring a disturbing situation: “A total of nine people could be listening … plus Mrs Shanks at the exchange. She was the biggest worry. You could never tell whether she was earwigging … She just quietly, sneakily, stayed on the line.”
Ian Baxter arrives in the community grief-stricken, haunted by the death of his wife Bridie, trying to do his best for daughter Gabrielle, and taking up the role of sharemilker on Jack Gilbert’s farm. Gabrielle impresses Nickie with her flamboyant clothes, make-up, and her mother’s perfumes. Gabrielle has had to grow up fast, and understands the difference between wanting and needing something. To Nickie, if you needed something, “like new undies or socks”, then you got it, but “something like make-up could never be needed.” Gabrielle also introduces Nickie to taking risks, beginning with the “kidnapping” and rescue of the bobby calves destined for the works. As the risks escalate, Nickie finds herself drawing back from this new, slightly dangerous friendship.
Of course, there is always a danger when one sees or hears something that one ought not. There are shades of David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down when the girls witness an ugly scene through a farm window at night.
At the heart of the novel is the dysfunctional relationship between Jack and Audrey Gilbert, the couple who own the farm where Ian Baxter works. In this community, it seems normal to allow a wife to be regularly beaten without anybody stepping in to help. It is up to the girls to do something, even though Nickie’s mother Joy warns her there will be “big strife” if they don’t keep quiet. There is pathos in the scene in which Audrey delivers lunch to the men who are getting in the hay – something expected of all the local wives – and the men ignore her bruises and gashed face. Strangely, it is brave Gabrielle who sets change in motion when she outs Jack Gilbert as a wife-beater at the local calf day, an act that has reverberations in the community.
Tragic acts in New Zealand novels invariably take place in the heat of summer, and the motif signalling the underground forces within this community is peat fire. Much of the Hauraki Plains, where this novel is set, used to be peat land, and there is an early warning about such land:
Here’s the thing about peat, her father used to say, blow me down, it catches fire! Not on the surface but deep down, in summer, in the spaces left by the macrocarpa stumps and the drained water, it bloody ignites somehow and next thing you’ve got an underground fire on your hands.
Even practical Joy must walk a line between respecting her husband’s views and the need to take personal action. Joy’s fury burns underground, like the peat fires, yet eventually she visits Audrey to see if she can help. She is shocked to see that “the bruises were everywhere”.
1970s rural New Zealand is vividly evoked with the Country Women’s Institute, 7411 cologne, big brown bottles of beer, and songs such as “Puppy Love”. And there is some lovely writing: as Gabrielle bikes over to Nickie’s, her raincoat is “the mysterious colour of oil spilled in a puddle of rainwater.” The land “is pitted with varicose veins of peat”. There are the “fat crayon colours” of the paddocks.
Often it is by leaving a place that one sees it more truly, and in both of these novels the main character does just that – Poppy via her OE and Nickie by moving to Auckland – achieving a kind of peace through understanding.
Tina Shaw is the author of numerous novels, for children and adults: a review of her latest, The Children’s Pond, from our Autumn 2015 issue, can be found in our online archive: nzbooks.org/archive/.