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Tanya Moir’s third novel, The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, skillfully weaves together the story of a young social outcast with the wide open spaces of a John Wayne-style Western to create a novel that is lyrical and deeply felt. The novel follows Winstone Haskett, a twelve-year-old runaway living rough in Central Otago. As the novel unfolds, taking us slowly but inorexably towards the event that caused him to run away, we also see into Winstone’s active imagination, where he dreams himself into the cowboy Westerns he loves so much.
The contrast between the Westerns in his head and the real-life nightmares around him couldn’t be more striking. Winstone’s father is a violent drunk, his brother is headed in the same direction, and his little sister, silent Marlene, is a passive, frightened victim. As a reader, it was often a relief to escape from the aggression and bullying of Winstone’s reality into his made-up Westerns, where men do the right thing and there’s still honour among thieves. His imaginary Westerns cleverly evoke the tropes of a classic Western film:
The sky was a hell of a thing. […] It was universal. Paramount. […] Cooper and the Kid rode up into it, all the way from the line of the river below, crawling up the edge of the sky into the eye of judgement. It took most of the day. Time lapsed. The sun shifted.
At the same time, though, Winstone’s Westerns echo real-life occurrences and bring out further thematic resonances, enriching your experience of the novel.
As the novel’s narrative threads intertwine, the character of Winstone comes into focus. He’s totally believable as a young urchin, bullied by kids at school, repeatedly taken advantage of, and forced to be quick-thinking and resourceful in order to survive. Moir’s style is never to judge him for his actions, so her authorial voice often takes a backseat, choosing to merely present Winstone in precise, clear detail to draw us into Winstone’s point of view. We grow to understand Winstone so well that by the time we reach the climax of the novel, that climax is utterly tragic, and also totally inevitable. The ending Moir gives you is the only one that she could have written.
So much of this novel’s story is contained in the long, loping sentences Moir uses to describe the Central Otago landscape. Moir’s descriptions are another refuge (for Winstone and the reader) from real life, wonderfully setting up both place and tone:
Below him the line of [the gully’s] lip was a slow blue wave seeping back through the grass and in its wake the slope glinted keen and fresh and gold and further back and above and behind and all around the reef of the Rough Ridge Range spread under the sky with the brown grass mounting the rocks like a furious tide and the sun that shone on the range was not tame but a thing to tread around carefully, a stalking thing fierce and yellow and thin that might, if it chose, rip out your throat and pick your bones.
Perhaps the overall tone of the novel is reflected in that description: on the one hand, threatening and menacing; on the other hand, warm, idyllic, “keen and fresh and gold”.
This is a novel that will linger with you for a long time.
Reviewed by Feby Idrus
The Legend of Winstone Blackhat
by Tanya Moir
Published by Vintage (Random House NZ)