Remember the 1980s when there was a rash of family sagas spanning generations in a single volume? The books were bricks and the TV series went on for weeks. For me, a lover of historical fiction, this was a great time in TV history that this century’s reality TV simply does not even come close to.
What I loved about those multi-generational family sagas was the passing on of traits, secrets and folklore, and the longer term implications of behaviours. The contemporary family are clearly linked to their ancestry through the story. Of course, we are all linked in this way, but for the most part I suspect we ignore this expect for a few family occasions each year – Christmas, funerals, octagenarian’s birthdays. And, even then, the stories are often limited to two generations.
Tanya Moir has taken the generational family saga and modernised it. Her approach to writing, which is really unique, was a little difficult for me as a reader to comfortably fit into at first, but soon the book enveloped me and I became as attached to the ancestors of Janine (the narrator of this story) herself. And I grew to appreciate Moir’s mastery of her craft.
Janine and her mother have turned researching their family into a lifetime mission. They traverse the globe (from Invercargill to London) to search the archives (white gloves in situ) and visit the substantial homes of their ancestors – they find a fortune made from hard work, and acquired through wily acts; and personal characteristics and flaws that they can tangibly recognise. What consumes both mother and daughter is an apparently genetic neurological disease. And, a good dose of madness.
Janine interweaves her ancestors into her own story, which is one of escape and isolation. She lives on an island (in Auckland) that is surrounded by a tidal waters and mangroves. Hence the eye-catching underwater photograph of mangroves on cover of the book. But the mangroves are sort of a metaphor (for me at least) of how this story unfolds – mangroves are hardy plants growing in the tidal estuaries; their branches are far reaching and convoluted; new roots and branches keeping popping up all over the place; and the plant (not unlike this family) has to survive the ever-changing tides.
It’s obvious really when you think about it, although I guess I had not before now, that when anyone researches their ancestry, a certain dose of fiction comes into play. Deeds, documents and photographs only provide the skeleton of the story. The rest needs to be filled in. And how well this is filled in determines just how interesting ones’s ancestry is. I guess this is the difference between a researcher and storyteller. And Janine (or perhaps more correctly Tanya) is a great story teller. Her story is peppered with scandal, love, sadness, despair and it all remains believable. This could be your family or mine, but it is definitely Janines’s story and she is very lucky to have Tanya Moir tell it for her. Very lucky indeed.
Is it obvious that I loved this book? I hope so.
Reviewed by Gillian Torckler
by Tanya Moir
Published by Vintage New Zealand