Unveiling tales behind the faces
Adrienne Jansen has years of experience working with immigrants new to New Zealand and the issues newcomers face: the isolation of living far from the country and culture of your birth, the loss of family and friends and all the challenges a new, unfamiliar life presents. She also pinpoints the gratitude of immigrants to be here in a place “so raw, so fresh, so uncluttered by history and bullet holes in walls”.
Among Jansen’s previous writing are the widely read I Have in My Arms Both Ways and the text she provided for The Crescent Moon: The Asian Face of Islam in New Zealand, in collaboration with photographer Ans Westra. Most recently she co-authored Migrant Journeys: New Zealand Taxi Drivers Tell Their Stories.
At a time when issues of immigration, migrant rights and institutional racism make headlines both here and abroad, a novel that connects us with our minority cultures is both educational and welcome. What’s more, Jansen has the ear and the eye to present these issues in a bright, lively and even quirky tale.
Her chosen cast is led by Marko from Bulgaria, a famed concert violinist or possibly a KGB spy. Tom McNamara, journalist, is on to the story. Stefan, a piano tuner who fled Portugal after he might have accidently killed a man, lives just across the hall from Marko in the inner-city block of social housing flats. He now continues his profession by craning his customers’ instruments up and over the balcony and into the tiny interior of his pokey fourth-floor apartment.
Haider, photographer, is a traumatised refugee from Baghdad and Nada, a hairdresser from Serbia, with two children in university, is still searching for a new man. Then there is Harminder Singh, ex-accountant now driving a taxi and dabbling in blackmail to supplement his survival, and an ancient Polish second-hand bookstore owner.
The plot thickens when a rent rise by the council sends the whole building into panic and into the hatching of a plan. But underlying the panic and the fear “like graffiti painted on the air” and the “desperate silence behind every door” flows the music: Stefan’s soft piano playing in the night, the muffled sound of the violin as Marko dares to take bow to strings again, in the tight confines of his bathroom.
Jansen takes us on the ride with understanding and just the right amount of humour, so we emerge at the end with renewed understanding, compassion and a wish to welcome.
A CHANGE OF KEY by Adrienne Jansen (Escalator Press, $28) Reviewed by Bernadette Rae