Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 26, 2022

Loop Tracks (2021), by Sue Orr

The first thing I did when I finished this outstanding novel was to find out if Sue Orr had written anything else.  From this profile at Read NZ, it seems she has.   There are two collections of short stories, and a novel called The Party Line, which I’ve just ordered.

The second thing I did was to have a good long think about how to convey the riches of this novel in a review.  Longlisted for the 2022 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards — and surely, surely! to be shortlisted when they make the announcement on the 2nd of March — Loop Tracks is an extraordinary work of fiction.  Written in real time during both the pandemic and the recent New Zealand election and referenda, the novel is about personal and political choices: a woman’s right to choose and the right to life; abortion and euthanasia; and who gets to have an opinion about those issues when a referendum gives everyone the right to vote on them. It’s also a novel about love: the joys and struggles of bringing up someone on the spectrum, and how lonely, worrying and fulfilling that can be, especially during the coming-of-age period.  Plus, because of its timing, Loop Tracks brings in Covid and its restrictions on personal liberty and the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories that bedevil contemporary life.

These tangles, as the pitch-perfect cover design implies, are connected, and they resolve themselves within a structure that gradually reveals back stories and how they impact on the present and the future. The novel begins in 1978 with the compelling first person account of Charlie, a sixteen-year-old girl on a flight to Australia to have a legal abortion.  In that fatal year the abortion clinic in NZ has been closed down, (not to be re-opened until the following year), leaving the desperate with only two choices: a backyard abortion or a covert pregnancy far from home followed by surrender of the baby, never to be seen again.

But for Charlie, on her way to Australia under the secret auspices of a women’s network, things go awry.  At Auckland International Airport, the plane is delayed, long enough for her to resurrect romantic impulses about being in love with a boy whose name she doesn’t know and who had just used her at a party.  She gets off the plane, and goes home to her shell-shocked parents who furtively arrange for her to ‘have a break from school’ to ‘visit a friend’ in Napier.

In Part 2, Charlie is a grandmother, raising Tommy who is on the spectrum but high-functioning.  He’s at uni in Wellington, studying maths and about to have his first-ever date. Jenna, despite Charlie’s anxieties about Tommy getting hurt by someone who doesn’t understand his needs, turns out to be lovely.  Her only flaw is that she is, understandably, interested in Tommy’s background and identity: the dead mother, the absent father.  But this is a no-go area for Charlie, who has never told anybody about anything, except for her friend Adele who keeps her grounded. Like Tommy, the reader doesn’t know any of this either at this stage, but it is gradually revealed as the novel progresses.  And that’s because the absent father resurfaces and turns out to be an evil mistake, leaving Charlie to face the fact that she thinks it would have been better if he hadn’t been born, but then she wouldn’t have Tommy…

(I chose the word ‘evil’ deliberately.  Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth explores the feelings of a mother whose son has done something truly evil and not repented. This is an unimaginable situation for those of us whose sons have brought nothing but pride and gratitude for the way they have turned out. )

The personal becomes political as the pandemic impacts on their freedoms, and the election brings two referenda with it. One referendum is about legalising euthanasia, and the other about legalising cannabis.  (Interestingly, the first one passed and the second one didn’t though that’s not mentioned in the novel).  Charlie and the rest of the characters are all pro Jacinda Ardern and her ‘compassion’ agenda, so it’s alarming for them when Tommy gets sucked into the alt-right politics of the anti-abortion movement. The issue is complicated by Tommy’s concern that people with special needs like him will be pressured by euthanasia, and his discovery about how his mother died.

One of many satisfying aspects to this story is the way that Tommy blossoms as an adult.  With each step towards independence, Charlie is anxious.  She worries about how he’ll cope with the noise and the crowds when he goes clubbing with Jenna; she’s even more concerned when they take a trip to Jenna’s family farm because he’s never been away from home before.  Charlie recognises for herself that she’s inclined to snoop because she’s not good at ‘not knowing’ and having Tommy out of range is a problem for her. She’s a very self-aware character, managing the emotional burden for both of them, but not always getting it right.  I think book groups would have a great time discussing Charlie and the contrast between her relationships with her son and her grandson.

There is much more to this novel, but I’ll conclude with an extract from Jenna’s quest to extract from a very reluctant Charlie the truth about Tommy.  Charlie thinks she’s pushy, and she’s got an intellectual basis for her opinion, but the defensiveness is apparent.

I search Jenna’s face for clues to the game we’re playing here.  Foucauldian discourse analysis.  I say it aloud, stupidly, my thoughts still wandering aisles of dusty books in a university library.  I see the quick look pass between Jenna and Tommy, the exchange of patient pity for me.  Tommy shrugs his shoulders, just the slightest twitch.  For the first time ever, I feel old in his company.

But I was right about Foucault.  This is about power, this conversation. We are poised mid-air, Jenna and I, on a playground seesaw; we are of equal weight and we dangle, our feet not quite touching the ground.  My strength is the knowledge she wants — the knowledge she claims Tommy wants — and her strength is Tommy’s burgeoning adoration of her.

Jenna says it again. ‘Don’t stop, Charlie.  You were going to say?’

I hold my ground, refuse to let her bounce me high.  I ladle the lukewarm, oily food into bowls.

Foucault had things to say, too, about spokespeople.  He wouldn’t have been keen on this one, professing to speak on behalf of my grandson.  He would say she should stick to her expertise, which is maths.  Tommy adores me too; she shouldn’t forget that.  Tommy and I have adored each other all our lives. (p.86)

Where this excerpt shows Charlie’s self-confidence and self-awareness, and a little arrogance perhaps, it’s interesting to discern the way the author crafts other situations to undermine this character with her self-doubt and long-held personal guilt and shame… without ever losing the reader’s empathy for her.

Highly recommended.

Author: Sue Orr
Title: Loop Tracks
Publisher: Upswell Publishing, 2022, first published 2021
Cover art: Greg Simpson
ISBN: 9780645076394, pbk., 333 pages
Review copy courtesy of Upswell Pulishing


  1. It does sound like an interesting work, though I am nervous, amongst all the things I am nervous of in fiction, of the overuse of the autism spectrum. Lucky you to chance on an exceptional new release. I am entirely reliant these days on reviews, and then on following them up, to find interesting new works. (I would not say my own children have “brought nothing but pride and gratitude for the way they have turned out”, but yes, they’ve done ok.)


    • I should say, that the author doesn’t mention the word ‘spectrum’. It’s just that those of us who’ve encountered it, recognise it. I recognise the mother’s strategies for management because that was bred into my bones by the time I finished my career.

      I hear you: we still #blush, not my choice, get the review in the Australian and the new editor is… how to say it nicely… better not to say anything at all… except that the review does not serve its purpose if its purpose is to introduce us to beaut new books.
      So, we rely on blogs, and thank goodness for that, eh?

      I would say, that if your kids have turned out ok, however you define that, then that is a matter for pride and gratitude.

      I met a man the other night who had a bicycle business, and I told him about the cycling adventures of The Offspring. I told him he’d done the Melbourne to Warrnambool bike race twice. He came last both times, the second time in perfect unison with the other man coming last because they decided that they wanted to be last/not last together. The bike man was not impressed, but I am very proud of that moment in my son’s life. (And yes, I was there to see it because I was his support crew. Moi, with no interest in sport of any kind!!)


      • Good on the Offspring and good on you. I’ve been support crew for my daughter in two Murray Marathons (kayaking) and the girls have been support crew for my swimming.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds excellent. Though like Bill I’m unsure about thr use of the spectrum business at the moment. My concern always is if the author doesn’t name it, should we? Why don’t they name it? It happens quite a bit. First person I can understand but third?


    • Sorry, on my phone. Hope this isn’t too cryptic! I mean, why doesn’t a third person voice name of?


      • Well, maybe I shouldn’t have named it…
        There’s a lot of politics around naming/not naming *pause* what word should I use? special needs? disability? neurodivergence? There are those who say naming is labelling while others say not naming is failing to acknowledge.

        The problem for a reviewer is that while the author can gradually reveal the behaviours of the character and how others react to that, and can take many pages to do it as it weaves its way into the story, the reviewer doesn’t have that luxury.

        But for me, amongst the many things I love about this book is the normalisation of this character and his successful relationships, and I wanted to convey that.


        • Yes I agree with what you say. It’s hard to know how to approach these things in a review. It feels a bit dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t.


          • We’ve come a long way in how we talk about these things now, and I suspect that many people would now not regard ‘being on the spectrum’ as a negative. I hope so, anyway.

            Liked by 1 person

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