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On first immersion, this is a novel full of shadows, muffled voices behind closed doors, with single, solitary loners, ears pricked up in paranoia, pacing the empty corridors of a council housing project. How the loners ache to be included in the simple goings-on of neighbours they can hear through the thin walls, but fear of their own past catching up with them haunts their every motive and move. Behind and between all this however, threads of music slowly weave the residents together in ways none of them could possibly have expected.
This book, by Adrienne Jansen, is centred on the same characters as her 2013 novel The Score, but it isn’t necessary to have read this first.
The story starts with Marko, a once illustrious Bulgarian musician, peering through foreign language books in a second-hand bookstore far away from his home country. At the counter he is spat upon by the old Polish shop owner and called a traitor. Someone has taken his picture, and there is his face in the newspaper, attached to a small headline on the front page: MP Claims KGB Spy Living Here. At the same time, living on the same floor is Stefan, Marko’s piano-restoring neighbour. Both men have run away from their home, and run far. The men, joined by others also separated from their own origins, bond through the shared love of music, a language common to all.
Each character faces the threats and challenges of being a foreigner in a foreign land – trying to fit in, to be accepted, to work in employment beneath their qualifications just to pay the rent, and the sadly common experience: racism born of intolerance and ignorance. Throw in a hefty building rent hike, terrorist suspicion, blackmail, threats of exposure, and you have a physical and mental health bomb waiting for detonation.
Sadly, the author is not making all of this stuff up. The novel draws on Adrienne Jansen’s years of experience working amongst New Zealand immigrants, and their collected anecdotes as people who have lived the immigrant experience in New Zealand.
A Change of Key is a moving story, and in that movement, music reveals itself as an integral part of life. The musical interludes between the fear and angst reveal how music both weaves the characters together into unexpected and welcome friendships, but also helps to unravel the tension experienced by them all. Marco, Stefan and the mentally fraught Phil experience freedom from the world through playing their instruments together. Within music they loosen and sometimes lose their fears and inhibitions. And those that listen to their music are also consoled by it. A lasting image for me is Haider, suspected terrorist and Stefan’s neighbour, head against the wall listening to Stefan playing the piano he’s been restoring within his flat. The sense of longing for connection in a foreign land is intense in that moment.
The ability Jansen has to weave so many characters from so many ethnic backgrounds, ages, and economic statuses into one, easy-to-hold paperback novel is to be applauded. A lot of graft and care has gone into this work and I am glad to have had the opportunity to read it. If you want to be moved yourself, by music, or, by life stories foreign to your own, then you’ll want to read this novel. I haven’t read a book invoking this much feeling in quite some time. Potentially it will make you look at your world and perhaps your own words and actions in quite a different way. Possibly it will even inspire you to more inclusive action in your everyday life. Forming your own band maybe?
Review by Penny M Geddis
A Change of Key
by Adrienne Jansen
Published by Escalator Press