Anticipation, by Tanya Moir (Random House New Zealand, 2013), 256 pp., $36.99
What makes us who we are? How much autonomy do you or I have over our own personalities, foibles, even fates? To what do we owe our ancestry? These are the questions that form the premise of Tanya Moir’s often engrossing and frequently entertaining second novel, Anticipation, in which a 40-something woman in present-day New Zealand recounts the story of her family, from her six-times-great grandparents to herself.
Anticipation is undeniably accomplished. Nonetheless, it felt to me too bound to its own theme, inescapably — and detrimentally — linked as it is to its literary elders. Anticipation belongs to a sub-genre that you could call the ‘tragi-comic literary saga’, alongside such novels as Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, One Hundred Years of Solitudeby Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer — and, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson, a tent pole novel for Anticipation, as I will discuss later. Like many others in the genre, Anticipation features a divided narrative — a narrative delivered from multiple viewpoints. Here, the story is told in short chapters narrated in the first-person by the cynical Janine, who is living alone on a small private island off the coast of Auckland, and in longer, non-chronological episodes that tell in third person the stories of her forebears. As is often the way in books resorting to this schematic design, the chapters set in the novel’s present are much less gripping than those set in the past. As her genre compatriots often also do, Moir displays a deft ability to wrap dreadful events, of which there are plenty — suicides, murders, devastating arsons, abandoned children, more than one loveless marriage and multiple madnesses — in a softening layer of linguistically clever, frequently ironic, humour.
Anticipation is a beautifully crafted novel. Moir has scored it out with a steady hand so that the story folds, fugue-like, over and over itself, repeating, expanding and reinforcing its central themes, even as its subject matter roams from Huguenot weavers being double-crossed out of their Spittlefields home, to a young war photographer capturing images he can never bear to share at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps. The non-consecutive arrangement of the ancestor chapters is a masterstroke, disorienting and intriguing the reader in equal measure, and most importantly serving to conceal the twist that is revealed in the final chapters.
Yes, there is a twist, one of the kind that is carefully and precisely disclosed between the lines of the prose before being explicitly divulged at the end, the kind that may cause head-smacking and of course-muttering. Again, a not-uncommon feature of many a tragi-comic saga, the twist works here both on the reading level, as a little gift that tops off the experience of the novel, and on the narrative level, as a reason for the depth of research that Janine has done into her origins and to give the book’s temporal scope a firm margin.
But Anticipation does more than just fit within a genre. It veers at times uncomfortably close to emulating a little too faithfully the classic examples of this genre, particularly in Moir’s dense, over-written style.
No noun goes unmodified. No opportunity to use an adjective is lost. Some of Moir’s prolific supply metaphors are surprising and pleasingly acute. Of a dying elderly woman, we are told that: ‘Her muscles are making their own decisions now, lazing around or running amok like fourth formers on the last day of term.’ But some are considerably less so, and turn unclear or clunky; earlier, for example, the same page that brings the elderly woman to life has given us a box of cherries that ‘weighs on the room like a poor joke’. Ouch. Others are so redundant or insistently cute as to make me long for an editor’s pen. Can we accept, for example, that one particular relative died following a ‘short but inconvenient illness’ – as opposed to the many short and convenient maladies by which we are so pleased to be afflicted? This author also has a fondness for the passive voice, again overusing it to the point of numbing the reader rather than illuminating the tale. The net result of all of this is lamentably twee, making the act of writing itself stand out awkwardly on the page. Moir is indisputably skilled at spinning an entertaining tale, but unfortunately Anticipation can feel burdened by a sense of effort. Striving too hard, the prose looms as laborious; it’s often distractingly dense with sweated-over adjectives, adverbs, similes, rhetorical questions, agent-less actions.
It also feels familiar, disturbingly so. Here I return to that model of the form, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a novel, more than any other, whose influence over style and content is evident in Anticipation. In fact, there was a point at which I was convinced that Moir was even steering her readers toward the same ultimate revelation as Atkinson, so similar was this passage, on page 22 of Anticipation, narrated by in-utero Janine:
‘… while my mother’s busy needles click, something inside her is growing. It’s not just me. I’m coming along well enough, hatching functions by the day. But there’s something else in here as well, something felted and dark, less sure of its own pattern. My tender synapses are intrigued. What is it we’re making?’
— to this one, which appears on page 16 of my edition of Behind the Scenes at the Museum, also told from inside the womb:
‘And why do I have this strange feeling, as if my shadow’s stitched to my back, almost as if there’s somebody else in here with me? Am I being haunted by my own embryonic ghost?’
But let me be clear that the narrational twists are not at all the same, and that Moir’s is absolutely not a copy of Atkinson’s novel. The themes, however, are nigh-on identical; there are similarities in plot points (dramatic fires, for example, or the surprising fates of soldiers lost late in the Second World War); and stylistically they are incredibly alike, Atkinson’s linguistic and syntactical quirks falling less naturally from the end of Moir’s pen.
I do not suppose for a moment that Moir consciously set out to ape another author and in no way could Anticipation be considered anything other than an original work. The issue is that, in resembling quite so much other novels with similar concerns, some of Anticipation’s inventiveness and accomplishment is masked, a disappointment for the reader, one that we feel to a degree on behalf of the author, perhaps ill-served by editorial or publisher’s advice, as her talent is worth more than this.
Although Anticipation’s jaded Janine — a rather clichéd divorcée who drinks too much chardonnay and refuses to open herself up to the possibility of love — tells a story that extends well into the past, she is not strictly speaking an omniscient narrator. Nor is she unreliable. She is descended, we discover, from a long line of scientists, and her research into her past is fittingly methodical. Moir peppers the stories that Janine tells about her ancestors with phrases that admit her narrator’s necessity for invention: ‘I’m guessing,’ she says, or ‘Of course we can’t know,’ or ‘I will give them this.’ There is the occasional parenthesised ‘why not?’ Janine has done her research, and her richly detailed accounts of the past, from (my favourite character) four times great aunt Babs — a craniologist who dons men’s clothes to attend anatomy lectures and to court, in the local pub, new subjects for analysis — to grandmother Sarah, a young London woman who at the height of World War II paints her legs in Bisto before an evening out dancing, are fictionalised, but based on its findings.
This is a clever narrative decision on the author’s part, the focus on scientific methodology and attendant questions about the nature of truth playing into the novel’s themes of legacy, and how much our own path is predetermined by those who went before us. Ultimately, Janine learns that while there are some things she can’t escape, she is still an individual in a long line of related but autonomous individuals. She may not have total control over her own fate but nonetheless she has a lot of freedom in choosing to be the person she is and will be. ‘It’s my story, too, and I’ve every right to end it as I please,’ Moir has her say at one point. ‘Indeed, I have the final word.’
It’s a lesson that Moir would be wise to take from her own book. She has not re-written Behind the Scenes at the Museum, or any of those other novels in the genre to which Anticipation belongs, but their ancestral presence hangs as ominously over the text as Janine’s past does over her at the novel’s opening.
Anticipation won’t be the final word from this novelist; it is, perhaps, that difficult second novel all authors are wont to struggle with. I hope that, like her protagonist, she is able to break away next time in tone and style from the models established by those who went before and use her considerable talents to create something that is more of herself.
EMILY BRAUNSTEIN BROOKES is a graduate of Victoria University of Wellington and a former editor of Salient. Her reviews have appeared in the Dominion Post, the Listener and the Times Literary Supplement. She currently lives and works in Paris.
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