La Rochelle’s Road, by Tanya Moir (Random House, Auckland, 2011), 272 pp., $39.99.
As the end of La Rochelle’s Road began to near for me, a collision of worlds ensured that this would be a novel I would remember for the most earthbound of reasons. Largely set in Canterbury’s Banks Peninsula during the 1860’s, La Rochelle’s Road lures the Peterson family from London, with the prospect of rolling fields and the charm of a furnished cottage. Upon arrival they confront a wilderness of scrub and a cottage full of filth and vermin.
While parents Daniel and Letitia begin the long and drawn-out taming of their property, 15-year-old son Robbie is forced to abandon further schooling to work with his father. With no revenue from their land the two men decide to join a gang of scrub cutters. In the exchanges between the workers, and in their enduring routines, Moir constructs a raft of cultural differences between the Petersons (and no doubt many other settlers), and the more established residents around them. Daniel’s workmates view those with an education as stirrers, who think the world owes them a living. In a telling statement they clarify their desire for egalitarianism in their new home; ‘We don’t want them and their funny ideas here – that’s what we bloody left for.’
Survival for the Petersons becomes a matter of resilience and adaptation. It is also a matter of relinquishing dreams and desires. Each Peterson responds in a vastly different manner. Moir’s success in displaying the impact of even the smallest of events elicits our frustrations and sympathies.
Robbie is more than happy not to attend school. Instead, he learns a multiplicity of practical skills from his mate Tommy. Hester, Robbie’s 18-year-old sister, is more reflective and self-contained, but we are provided with her thoughts and observations through her ongoing letters to a friend in England. They assume a diary-like form, and weave a parallel pattern with the discovered diary of La Rochelle, the original owner of the land. These written documents focus our minds on the rugged and ragged extremes of Canterbury and the West Coast of the South Island in the nineteenth century.
Sky and sea frequently set the mood for the day’s events. The sky encompasses changes from claustrophobic: varying from when the ‘heavy, blue-black bruise of a sky lies low’ to the ‘blue-sky day when anything seems possible’. The sea, never to be trusted, ‘glows silver-blue’ or is ‘muted and grey-green’. It is also a dramatic repository for life and land.
During an attempt to find a pass from the West to the East Coast, La Rochelle discovers he and Hine, his lover, have not crossed the Alps as he hoped, but have merely ‘slithered into their pocket’, with no plains below them, only ‘a valley, narrow and blind.’ Whether or not La Rochelle and Hine could emerge unscathed from an unprotected winter in snow-clad high country was a question that bothered me. In the end I convinced myself that Moir’s careful research for the novel would have confirmed that it was possible.
While descriptions of the environment were not always necessary, Moir’s ability to employ the land for many purposes is a strength of her writing. The reaction of characters to their environment is pivotal for understanding the motivations that prompt their actions, although, given the extent of lifestyle change, Hester’s quite passive acceptance of major changes in living conditions, and of her new activity as a scrub cutter, is sometimes surprising.
It is Letitia who is most affected by her environment and for whom the land becomes a bleak trap. She eventually succumbs to hopelessness but the build up to her end seemed to lose momentum, with the experience becoming quite gentle and pleasant.
One of the links between characters and time is Hine. An ageless, spiritual being, Hine is an intermediary that lessens the collision of worlds, especially for Hester and Robbie. Being finely attuned to the natural environment it is Hine who alerts the others to a drastic change in the sea preceding a series of tidal waves.
La Rochelle’s Road ties fiction to the anchors of historical fact. In 1868 a series of tidal waves, emanating from a massive offshore earthquake around the Peru-Chile border, rampaged around Banks Peninsula. A day later, the road moves beneath Hester’s feet, and at home the chimney cracks. Cups and pots fall to the floor. Again the event and its timing are accurate. While I was reading about Hester experiencing earthquakes in 1868, the swarm of earthquakes continued in Christchurch. Synchronicity? Coincidence? Tanya Moir’s debut novel transcends time and distinctively captures the drama of those who survived and settled in a remote ‘paradise’.
JENNY POWELL is a Dunedin-based reviewer and poet, whose books include Viet Nam: A Poem Journey (HeadworX, 2010).