Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tanya Moir's new novel - "an absorbing and fascinating read"

By Tanya Moir
RRP $36.99

Reviewed by Maggie Rainey-Smith

The promotional media release says this is ‘startlingly original and superbly written’ – well, I can’t argue with that.   It also goes on to say the novel ‘takes a darkly humorous look at family history’.   Dark indeed, and if there is humour, it’s decidedly black.   But don’t be put off by that!    I will confess that it took me a while to warm to the narrator (Janine), the unrelentingly cynical tone, but I’m glad that reviewing a book requires that you read it.   As for humour, it’s not the laugh out loud kind of funny, but the narrator has a very darkly clever turn of phrase.   It grows on you.   You keep waiting and hoping for her redemption.   Does she find it?   Well, I’ll leave that for you as the reader to decide for yourself.
                The narrator, Janine is living on an island just off Auckland where she is writing up the stories of her ancestors.   She’s in flight from a failed marriage and is obsessed with her family history but there’s a good reason for this – faulty genes as she sees it, one in particular that she suspects (50/50 chance) she has inherited.   And then there’s Jake, the builder who comes over by boat, who is building a jetty for her.   And then sometimes the weather cuts up rough and Jake has to stay overnight.  It is to this sanctuary, this part of the story that the narrator returns as a rest almost between the reimagining of her ancestors stories, most of which are pretty grim but fascinating.    I was glad too of the respite; I enjoyed the gentle sexual tension brewing, a nice change of pace and tone.
                She begins by telling us about her mother Maggie and a near-drowning experience as a schoolgirl.   There is a reservoir and her mother falls in, or is she pushed?  Aha, that lovely Gothic Kiwi thing going on.  And all the time, this faulty gene, this darkness pervades the story and too, the less than satisfactory mother and daughter relationship.  At times I didn’t fully understand it, and I wanted more warmth, the narrator’s heart instead of her head.   But oh, the ancestors’ stories...   they are original, remarkable and gripping.  
                 I think it was when Harry, the narrator’s great, great, grandfather was introduced, that I became completely hooked.   I was 40 pages in, so if you are an impatient reader, it’s worth hanging in there.    The narrator digresses a lot (most cleverly) but it can be distracting.   I was reminded of Kate Atkinson’s narrator in ‘Scenes behind the Museum’.   Too, the extent to which fate and happenstance impact on the ancestor’s stories, it also reminded me of Sebastian Faulks’ ‘A Possible Life’.    And too, closer to home, I’m reminded of aspects of Charlotte Randall’s ‘The Curative’.

                I like this right at the start... “What we’ve learnt is that we’re all made to the same pattern.  Knitted up like a thrifty housewife’s sock from scraps – random unravelled bits of yarn that used to make someone else, chance combinations from the hand-me-down wardrobes of dead strangers.”
                And I like this, when Janine is talking about her failed marriage.  “Greg was good for me.  Everybody said so.  And I could feel it myself.  I was smoother with him, more finished off.  He made such a neat job of hiding my rough edges.  I ran him round my life like a tube of No More Gaps and I was very grateful.”
                And then, reluctantly, nearer to the end I found myself in Bergen-Belsen. I didn’t want to be there and I usually nowadays try to avoid such stories, having perhaps over-dosed on them when I was younger out of curiosity, but there I was, the same way that Sebastian Faulks took me in ‘A possible Life’, unexpectedly and shockingly and yet too entirely absorbingly, because it is done so well – but be warned. 
                Although quite dark at times, it is an absorbing and fascinating read.   You can’t help but to be impressed with the clever interweaving of medical science, war and history, and the sometimes chillingly clinical observation of what it is to be human, the genes we inherit.   “(You know, some people can smell hydrogen cyanide.  Burnt almonds.  It’s genetic apparently.   Ask yourself how they know.)”... yes, in brackets, just a lovely dark aside from the narrator.
                This is the author’s second novel, the first being ‘La Rochelle’s Road’ and I cannot compare because I haven’t yet read that... although the media release for ‘Anticipation’ describes it as ‘quite different’ .  Of course now, as with all good writing, I’m interested to read her first novel, to compare but I do know it received very good reviews. 

Maggie Rainey-Smith (right) is a Wellington writer and regular reviewer on Beattie's Book Blog. She is also Chair of the Wellington branch of the NZ Society of Authors.    

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