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La Rochelle’s Road by Tanya Moir

This absorbing first novel takes a familiar story and revitalises it.

The story is one we recognise – a family leaves a comfortable life in England in the mid-1800s to make a life in New Zealand. The expected pastureland on Banks Peninsula is inhospitable scrub that won’t yield them a living, and the backbreaking work and other challenges of a remote hill country farm at the mercy of the weather push the family to the edge of ­endurance.

In this first novel, La Rochelle’s Road, Tanya Moir reshapes the familiar narrative with refreshing prose, engaging characters and a setting that takes the breath away. Banks Peninsula is splendidly drawn as a place that is both stark and exquisitely beautiful – every movement of the besieged Peterson family is accompanied by the movements of the sun, wind and tides, and underpinned by the hilly sea-bound wilderness that is their new home.

Our house has its back to the sea, writes Hester in her journal. Below us, the ocean spreads to the sky, twitching and wide and blue and hungry.”

The family also finds the land is crosshatched with the history and secrets of those who’ve made a life on it, not least Étienne La Rochelle, who built the house and broke in the farm that is now theirs. Hester, the daughter, discovers a journal that describes La Rochelle’s illicit love for a Maori woman and his passion for New Zealand, and that leads her to discoveries about the people of the peninsula and herself.

The interwoven stories are well realised via the protagonists’ voices, journal entries and letters home, and the unravelling of the novel’s secrets (and the accompanying pace and tension) are finely crafted to continue satisfyingly until the end.

An accomplished blending of historical fact with fiction will provide moments of recognition for quake-ravaged Cantabrians.

Above all, the language is fresh, vivid and authentic, with descriptions of places, people and events that demand rereading. Having said that, Hester’s parents, Daniel and Letitia, needed a little more work to make them, and what happens to them, completely convincing. And two irritating decisions have been made that hinder narrative flow: the excessively short chapters (many of only one page) and the large cursive font used for La Rochelle’s journal. It’s a tribute to the strength of the writing, particularly the voices of Hester and La Rochelle, that these problems largely recede as the novel gets into its stride.

Moir’s novel is that wonder: absorbing historical fiction that replenishes our view of the world then and now.

LA ROCHELLE’S ROAD, by Tanya Moir (Black Swan, $39.99).

Mary McCallum’s The Blue won the Best First Book Award for Fiction and was Readers’ Choice at the 2008 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.