Book Review: A Change of Key, by Adrienne Jansen

Available in bookshops nationwide. 

cv_a_change_of_key.jpgOn 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
ISBN 9780473440916

Book Review: Migrant Journeys: New Zealand taxi drivers tell their stories

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

I finished this book feeling that I had just met a series of interesting strangers and cv_migrant_journeylistened to them summarise their life stories.

It is in some ways a simple book: a collection of interviews with fourteen migrant taxi drivers. These have been unobtrusively edited into first-person narratives that cover each person’s journey from their home country to New Zealand, through various changes in circumstances that eventually led them to take up taxi driving.

Each section starts with a brief profile of the participants, including some background about their country of origin and the reasons that they left. Those who became refugees or migrated in response to instability in their home countries have had some harrowing experiences. The fact that they are willing to talk about their pasts now indicates that they have some distance: the writers note at the start of the book that some of their potential interviewees pulled out of the project after finding that old memories were too painful for them. Others pulled out because they felt participating would not be acceptable to their communities, or would reflect badly on them professionally.

I appreciated the fact that the authors explained this at the start of the book: it acknowledges that their participants are not necessarily representative of the whole taxi driving sector (there are only two female participants, for example), although they are still diverse in origin and in their motivations. The introduction to the book also incorporates a helpful summary of New Zealand’s immigration context and the challenges currently faced by new migrants.

These are typical migrant stories in many respects: people move somewhere relatively safe, knowing that their own career prospects are uncertain but figuring that their children will have better opportunities from being educated here. Taxi driving is not a bad option for many, and some of the people who tell their stories here are proud of their own entrepreneurship in this sector: several owners and managers of taxi companies have been interviewed. A number also express frustration about the apparent unwillingness of New Zealand employers to take on people with foreign qualifications or names.

The participants all have their own theories as to why their preferred jobs are difficult to come by, and most seem very philosophical. There are some very sharp intellects on display here – people who are well qualified, well informed and bring interesting perspectives about social issues in New Zealand and in the countries where they have been. Reading the accounts together, I got an overall sense of how overseas-born taxi drivers see New Zealanders: we’re mostly kind, honest people, to the point of being slightly naïve. Sometimes ignorant about the rest of the world, and unaware of how good we have it here. Not at our best when we drink.

Although I felt the book ended somewhat abruptly – there is no conclusion, the stories just finish – upon reflection I don’t think it needed a conclusion. The stories speak for themselves.

A couple made me laugh out loud, others were compellingly dramatic and some have some very quotable soundbites. Every narrative gave me the impression that follows a good conversation with a new person: That person seems cool. I am glad I heard their story. I learned something. The authors’ stated aim in publishing this book is to “contribute to a wider understanding of what it is like to leave your home country and work hard to settle in a new land”. These stories remind us why it is so important to listen to each other.

Migrant Journeys: New Zealand taxi drivers tell their stories
by Adrienne Jansen and Liz Grant
Published by Bridget Williams Books
ISBN 9781927277331

Reviewed by Rebecca Gray, author of The First Door that Opened