Scoop Review of Books

Lives in Fugue

Book Review
A Change of Key by Adrienne Jansen (Escalator Press, $28)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

change-of-key-201018-001Adrienne Jansen, a Wellingtonian, teaches on the creative programme at Whitireia Polytechnic. She and a group of Whitireia colleagues and students founded and run the Escalator Press which published this book.

With years of experience as an ESOL teacher, Jansen has worked extensively with immigrants to New Zealand and written for and about them.  She has used her experience to create a diverse cast of migrants for this novel and for its predecessor, The Score.  She has also written some non-fiction such as Migrant Journeys, which was based on conversations with immigrant taxi drivers.

It is not necessary to have read The Score to enjoy A Change of Key which tells its story against a background of the difficulties that migrants, divorced from their inherited culture can encounter in adjusting to our country, from housing to employment to understanding idiomatic English.  Most of the characters live in a block of council flats, several off the same corridor.  They have varied reasons that drove them to New Zealand, from Portugal, Bulgaria, Serbia, Iraq or Sudan. An Indian taxi driver and a Polish bookseller also feature in the story.  Some of them have deep personal secrets based on traumatic experiences that almost broke them psychologically and drove them deliberately to seek “the ends of the earth”. This is particularly so for Marko, the Bulgarian violinist who is the main character and also for Stefan, the Portuguese piano tuner who makes a lot of efforts to get Marko’s life back on track.

This is not a dark, heavy-going novel; rather it is a very readable, worthwhile, multicultural mystery story that revolves around a series of issues that Marko and his neighbours are grappling with. Who has accused Marko of being a former KGB spy?  How did the accuser find out about the encounters that lie behind this accusation?  What, if anything, should he do about it?  Do the neighbours believe Marko’s version of events? Why did he leave Bulgaria?

In a subplot, the residents plan and carry out various activities designed to stop a threatened rent increase that would prevent many of them continuing to live there.  Music plays a significant part in the story, as intimated in the title, with several characters playing a variety of instruments together, but at times it brings back memories that are too painful for some of the individuals to continue playing.

There are some unlikely touches, for example hauling grand pianos up to the fourth floor for Stefan to repair.  But these are details.  They do not detract from the fact that this is an unusual novel dealing with migrants – a topical New Zealand issue – and I would recommend reading it.