Book Review: Anticipation

By Michael Larsen

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Tanya Moir plucks clever phrases from a fluid well of imagination. Photo / Fiona Tomlinson
Tanya Moir plucks clever phrases from a fluid well of imagination. Photo / Fiona Tomlinson

Anticipation by Tanya Moir
(Vintage $36.99)

The materially successful but spiritually bereft Janine Harding finds herself, in her early 40s, living in a "do-up" on an island in the Hauraki Gulf, where time on her hands sets her to thinking about her family history. Using the starting point she possesses the most knowledge of, her mother Maggie, she starts writing down events, reactions and behaviours, mostly in an attempt to explain her own state of mind, her own life journey so far.

So far, so unremarkable, perhaps. But the accomplished Moir, recipient of this year's Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellowship, takes the premise and through a sophisticated structure and wonderfully wry way with words, creates a narrative that pulls you in and binds you to the actions and outcomes of what proves to be a remarkable lineage.

In a concisely delivered 252 pages, we go back to Huguenots exiled in London, a medical Harding facing a murderer's moral dilemma in 1856, through to World War II blitz-life and a grandfather who unearthed and photographed things when Belsen was "liberated" that perhaps should have remained undeveloped.

The thread tying together the myriad historical strands is Janine's strained relationship with the ever-peculiar Maggie, whose diagnosis of an uncommon mental illness starts to explain not only her own antics, but those of centuries of Hardings before her. This may sound grim: the playful prose and delicately shaded perspective make it far from it.

Moir is judicious: serious when warranted, frivolous when just one more bizarre/unfortunate genetic discovery may tip the whole thing into maudlin territory.

Her talent with prose is far-reaching; her ability to pluck a clever phrase from a seemingly inexhaustible well of fluid imagination quite stunning. The disease, when diagnosed, sounds a genial sort of disease. I imagine it welcoming symptoms in - to white-coated applause and a jaunty theme - with a tan and a Yorkshire accent.

Her relationship break-up, revealed in full a long way in, is described thus: It was unpleasant, of course. The division of things. Like unpicking a jumper. No matter how badly the pattern is turning out, you've still got something before you pull the thread, and nothing when you've finished.

The denial and deception typical of most families run deep in the Hardings, often revealed in self-aware comments from Janine herself. When her builder, for whom she develops an inescapable passion, asks her a telling question, she replies quickly, but first in her head:

"So who are you writing all that for?"

The fireplace, mostly. "Oh, I don't know. Posterity, I suppose."

Posterity? Janine, herself, is childless. Yet the desire to tell our own particular story, even if it isn't peppered with spicy history to the degree the Hardings' one is, will continue to draw people like Moir to the page to pour it out.

And, as long as these stories are as well told as this one, they will continue to draw us as readers, too.

- NZ Herald

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