A Change of Key by Adrienne Jansen.
Wellington: Escalator Press (2018).
RRP: $28. Pb, 246pp.
In Adrienne Jansen’s A Change of Key we are reacquainted with some characters from her previous novel, The Score (2013), signalling the author’s continued interest in migrant communities. The characters in A Change of Key are recent migrants who live in central city council flats, attempting to make a new life yet still haunted by the past. This novel is not a sequel, rather it focuses on another protagonist in the community, Marko, a violinist, whose past has caught up with him.
Marko’s past has been alluded to in Parliament; a Polish bookstore owner spits in his face and calls him a traitor; and other tenants in the flats think he’s a Russian spy. The truth of Marko’s history is revealed slowly as he opens-up to Stefan, the piano-maker (who was the main protagonist of The Score) and we learn about the sacrifices Marko made in coming to New Zealand.
As in The Score, music brings the tenants together in their new present, as well as returning them to the past. Marko’s violin playing is integral to his story of migration. This unfolds as he plays with Stefan and fellow tenant Phil and thus, through music, the wider community comes to appreciate him.
The concerns of the other tenants also come into play. The Council plans to put up the rent, so the tenants get together to see how they can stop the rent rise which they can ill afford. The $40 rent increase has huge implications for their quality of life and highlights their vulnerability in their new country.
The tenants’ protest plan against the Council’s proposed rent increase includes setting up a market in the Council flats where they sell books and food. This effort aims to bring the wider community on to the tenants’ side, but it also serves to reveal their vulnerability when the police show up demanding to know what is happening.
Singh (another character from The Score) re-appears in A Change of Key. Despite driving taxis in the city and doing the accounts for his Kiwi brother-in-law, Singh cannot seem to make a decent living and, in order to survive, he turns to other activities – not all above board. Singh shows how new migrants can clash with others in order to survive.
More positively, the characters Nada and Veronica move from a sense of competition, towards a deeper understanding. Similarly, Marko connects with Haider (who has been accused of being a terrorist). Although their moment of connection is brief, it’s enough to show some common ground.
The fictional city is not named. It feels like Wellington. Tenants walk into town, to the waterfront, and to the vegetable market, or drive to the South Coast. Leaving the metropolis un-named suggests that the setting could be anywhere in New Zealand, or indeed the world. This microcosm highlights the global plight of migrants who are trying to settle in somewhere new. But, for me, the city un-named misses an opportunity for it to become a character in the book.
Music connects characters in the flats and I wondered whether the structure of the book could be highlighted by using a musical structure. At times the tone was a little ‘one note’, and moments of climax too brief. Though I cared for the characters and their futures, and the depiction of a multi-cultural New Zealand, the moments of personal crises could have been amped-up a little to reveal their vulnerability more acutely.
Jansen has been working with the migrant community in New Zealand for several years and her non-fiction work, such as Migrant Journeys: New Zealand taxi drivers tell their stories, illustrates her passion for people. The third person narration of A Change of Key, though, put too big a distance between characters’ concerns and the reader. While the use of third person narrative attempts to gather together the community and their concerns, Jansen also appears to remain focused on the individual. Trying to do both, for me, means that the story does not delve deep enough, for example, into the psyche of Marko. That said, each character has a fascinating, and at times tragic, backstory. For me, the narrative balance between telling the story of the individual, and of the community, needed a little fine tuning in this otherwise engaging insight into the lives of recent migrants. Yet, the novel promotes taking charge of your own story – who you decide to tell, or whether someone tells it for you.
Rebecca Styles (PhD in creative writing at Massey University) has written a novel based on an ancestor’s experience of mental illness at Seacliff Asylum. She’s had short stories published in New Zealand journals and anthologies, and teaches short story writing at Wellington High School Community Education Centre.