Book Review: The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, by Tanya Moir

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Tanya Moir’s third novel, The Legend of Winstone Blackhat, cv_the_legend_of_winstone_blackhatskillfully 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)
ISBN 9781775537755

Book review: Anticipation by Tanya Moir

cv_anticipationThis book is in bookshops now.

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
ISBN  9781775532019