NZ Book Council recently announced results of a survey taken on readership of NZ fiction. Disappointing and alarming probably sum up the results in as few words as possible. Which is a shame because there is amazing NZ fiction being written and published. Such as this one, the first novel by well known short story writer Sue Orr, a fiction finalist for the Ockham NZ Book Award 2016. It is an outstanding book, a very, very good story and hopefully at least one person reads it from this review and then tells others. As well as a great plot and interesting diverse characters, it is easy to read, bit of a page turner even, and is so quintessentially NZ in its setting, the mores of the time, and how we lived in the 1970s. This ability to so accurately and beautifully capture the essence of a small town/farming community is largely due to the author having grown up on a farm. Her ability to communicate that childhood and what she remembers of it is wonderful. Even if you didn't grow up on a farm, you will no doubt have visited and spent time with relatives and friends on a farm, and this writing will instantly take you back there.
Every year in June, the share milkers move around the country, moving to new jobs, farms, houses, schools, taking their wives, their children, their pets, belongings, vehicles. The farming community of Fenward, somewhere between Paeroa and Thames, always has a number of share milkers: good workers, good neighbours, everyone mucking in together, children and adults alike. Nickie Walker is a 12 year old girl who lives with her farm owning parents Eugene and Joy. Next door is Jack Gilbert and his wife Audrey. Jack, it would seem, is not a particularly good farmer, and for the first time, this year he has employed a share milker - Ian Baxter, recently widowed, who arrives with his 12 year old daughter Gabrielle. For Nickie, and the other girls at school, and the boys, Gabrielle is a wonder to behold. Beautiful, dazzling in fact, very smart, almost precocious, she has the school in her palm from the day she walks in the place. For the adults, however, especially the mothers, Gabrielle is going to be trouble, mark my words, far too big for her boots, the type of girl they are not used to dealing with, and who needs to be brought down a peg or two. She wears lipstick!
Naturally Nickie can't resist being in the Gabrielle orbit, and the two rapidly become best friends. In their efforts to rescue some bobby calves from being sent off to the works, they unwittingly observe an act of brutality and violence that immediately shoves them into the adult world, a world of complexity that at 12 years old, they are not equipped to deal with. With Ian still grieving for his dead wife, he is unable to deal with his wayward daughter, and with Nickie, who is desperately trying to break away from the confines of her tightly controlled life, she and Gabrielle set about trying to put right what is so obviously very wrong. And the layers slowly peel away from the rigid conventions that keep small communities ticking over, forcing people to rethink long held ways of doing things, their views and the collective complicity that results. The party line is what links everyone - the telephone system that has a number of phone numbers on the one line, making it very easy and very common for users to eavesdrop on others' phone conversations - a perfect source of gossip, news, intrigue and danger. Our need for privacy is compromised by something like the party line, which just encourages further the belief that what goes on behind closed doors stays behind those closed doors.
'The Party Line' is a coming of age story, not only of the two girls, but also of the community of Fenward. People change, some for better, some for worse, and Nickie's return to the town some 40 years later for a funeral shows some of these changes, helping her acceptance of what happened all those years ago. Many issues are touched on in this book, greatly helped by the never-below-the-surface violence and death so much a part of daily farm life. So we have callous care of animals, domestic violence, misogyny, depression, grief, community conformity and clearly defined roles for the sexes, a strong drinking culture, tough men, strong women, school calf day. It is a such a good book, giving the reader such a strong sense of the 1970s, the farming landscape, and the people living on and working the land.