Changing gears

Changing gears, Things Done Wright – New Zealand, 2023

Jen and Abigail – Abi for her friends – meet in France, during a bike riding holiday that will take them from Paris to Avignon, stopping along the way to absorb as much as they can of the French landscape, culture and Bordeaux. Abi, originally from Scotland, is a travel blogger there to try out and write about cycling holidays, while Jen, from Australia, booked the trip inspired by a colleague of hers who recently did something similar in the Champagne region.

The two girls meet at the hotel reception where they are going to spend the night. There is a brief exchange between them and then they take the keys to their rooms. They meet again the following morning over breakfast, where they find out they are both taking the same cycling tour and decide to buddy up. They begin sharing private information, funny anecdotes and personal tastes and their friendship grows. For Jen it is unusual to have a lesbian friend who doesn’t hide and talks so openly about her experiences. After all, she comes from a ‘holier than thou’ upbringing and a very strict work environment. That’s why, despite her easiness around Abi, when they have to share the same bed because of a booking mistake, Jen wakes up the following morning worrying about what she did the night before.

“Those circles?“ Abi let out a long sigh and shook her head. “I like you Jen, I really do, but a few times over the last couple of days, you’ve definitely pinged my homophobe detector. And you’ve got a terrible game face.” With a shrug, she turned her attention back to her coffee, pausing the conversation.

Jen pursed her lips, looking for a way to salvage the situation. “I hear what you’re saying. I do. I… this is foreign territory for me. No one I grew up with ever identified as gay. And my family never talks about homosexuality other than to put it on the list of sins to keep away from. Maybe you’re right, I do know gay people, but they haven’t come out to me because I’m awkward about it. I don’t mean to be. I speak gay as well as I speak French,” and she winced at herself. 

This innocent but still confusing episode brings back a memory from Jen’s past:

Her chest tightened as she remembered Becky Taylor running around the local swimming pool, playing without a care in the world for what anyone might say about her. Until Jen held her hand in assembly one day, a soft palm fitted snuggly into her own. Owen—Becky’s supposed boyfriend—had seen, and as Becky snatched her hand away, so too went their friendship and any links Jen had to other girls in class. Rumours bloomed, and Jen went from popular to pariah. It was well-timed good fortune she was sent off to a Christian high school that next year. Gossip died slowly over the Christmas holidays, and then she simply left everyone at her public primary school behind. After that, she worked hard to ensure those kinds of rumours never took root again.

It gradually becomes more evident why Jen simply stepped away from anything even remotely gay. Despite this, the air between them clears and they continue their cycling trip on the same, light note as before. 

On their final day Jen and Abi exchange a kiss, but Jen is clearly startled by the experience so Abi apologies. Instead of making a big deal out of it, they brush it off and promise to keep in contact through phone calls and social media once they are back home. There is a huge time difference between Scotland and Australia, but they make it work the best they can, also because Abi, being a travel blogger, is not always in Scotland.

In the meanwhile, back in Australia, Jen, who is a teacher in a private Anglican high school, where homosexuality or promiscuous behaviour are clearly not tolerated, is trying to deal with a broken-hearted gay girl who is bullied by her classmates and on the verge of expulsion.

A lesbian at St Mildred’s Ladies College? Surely not. It would not be tolerated.

It will not. What starts with a simple teenager’s broken heart will quickly blow out of proportion and into a political, ideological and civil rights fight. The broken-hearted girl is named Emily. Soon after the end of her adolescent fling she will become the perfect target of Ashleigh, Zoe and their wealthy clique. But while the school policy is to silently force these ‘type’ of girls to transfer to a different school, Jen and some of her students don’t agree. They organise protests and take the matter onto social media, enflaming them to the point that even the national and international news take an interest in it. At this point, Jen will have to take a position too: standing up for what is right or saving herself and her teaching career at St Mildred Ladies College?

The whole book is brilliantly split into two different timelines: there is the 2017 one, covering the period of time when Abi and Jen are pedalling through France, and then there is the 2018 one, which is the book present time, when the two girls are living their lives separately. Both timelines move forward independently, instead of telling events that happened at different times in a non-chronological way. Considering the structure of the book, where we slowly discover new info page after page, peeling off each veil carefully, I think that’s a very clever way to avoid confusion.

Wright takes her reader along for the ride with a clear narration, superb prose and an intertwined but simple plot that leaves you satisfied, increasingly moving and rich. A great effort for a debut novel.

You can by Changing gears on Amazon and leave a review on Goodreads.

Also, if you liked what you read, we advise you also give a go to the books by Clint Chico, who treats the L-word with the same effortless grace. You can find them here.

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