La Rochelle’s Road by Tanya Moir
Random House $39.99
Tanya Moir's first novel is an example of historical fiction that brings to life a moment in time in a way that is graceful and thoughtful.
A family immigrates to New Zealand in the 1860s. Daniel and Letitia Peterson leave a life of comfortable, if somewhat boring routines in search of idyllic pastures "to grow grass". Instead of rolling fields reminiscent of home, they are stunned to discover their land on Banks Peninsula is sheer wilderness.
Moir has said that many of the Canterbury immigrants would have had no idea how to rough it "since they'd almost certainly never slept in a tent, or been without running water, they had no idea how to cook, and the wealthier women had probably never even made a cup of tea". Moir suggests that in the context of the Christchurch earthquakes, this "is a timely thing to remember".
The Petersons had escaped from a far easier life - humdrum, but full of little comforts, reading, poetry, the sweet smell of violets. In contrast, the women's days in New Zealand were taken up with baking bread, washing clothes, working the land and walking for hours to get supplies.
La Rochelle's Road is, then, a story of survival, but it is also a story of love, ideals and of the understated politics of daily life. Daniel left home with strong ideas about the working class. He yearned for freedom for all men (I am not sure how women fitted in his political dream). However, the gap between the romance of labour and the toil of clearing the land alongside men with no time for left-wing politics sealed his mouth.
What I particularly like about the book is the way it builds in layers through the seamless intrusion of other texts. Chunks of writing in italics can be offputting for the reader - but not in this case. The daughter's diary and her letters back to England work perfectly to illuminate each particular scene and its consequences.
Equally fascinating is the daughter's discovery of the buried notebook and letters of the previous occupant, La Rochelle. Hester is captivated by the story of illicit love revealed in the pages and the way the unfolding portrait of the man is not at all what she had anticipated.
Like all good historical novels, the history is complicated and challenging rather than straightforward and neatly explained. La Rochelle's Road is a good read.
Paula Green is an Auckland poet and children's author.