Hidden crime forces town to rally round

New Zealand author Jenny Pattrick. Photo supplied.
New Zealand author Jenny Pattrick. Photo supplied.

HEARTLAND<br><b>Jenny Pattrick</b><br><i>Random House</i>
HEARTLAND<br><b>Jenny Pattrick</b><br><i>Random House</i>
Despite its near-contemporary setting and focus, Jenny Pattrick's latest novel, Heartland, revisits and magnifies themes familiar to readers of her historical novels: the complex relationships that run beneath the surface of small communities, the nature of family (both those that we are born into and those we choose ourselves), and the way in which the physical environment shapes individual and collective identity.

It is also probably the most autobiographical of her books, drawing on people and places from her own life for inspiration. Nestled at the base of Mt Ruapehu, the once-thriving milling town of Manawa (a thinly disguised Rangataua) now stands half empty, kept afloat by the hated townies who arrive on winter weekends to ski the slopes of the nearby mountain and home to a collection of runaways, refugees and those for whom the town is so much a part of them that they could live nowhere else.

The plot centres on a concealed (but victimless) crime, the discovery of which could destroy the community, but it is the actors themselves that are the real focus of the novel; former provincial rugby champion, agarophobic, and champion lace maker Bull, and his friend Vera, as weathered and ramshackle as the ageing house she has lived in all her life, who wheels his dinner over every night in an old baby buggy.

The Virgin Tracy, hiding from her parents and trying to raise the baby that is the result of her own father's abuse, and Donny Mac, a giant puppy of a young man who is also trying to care for a baby that may or may not be his and whose ''slowness'' is more than compensated for by his generosity of heart. The elderly McAneny sisters (modelled on Pattrick's own relatives), who are looking for a safe refuge in which to end their days, and, hanging over them all, the shadow of the volcano, a constant presence that both protects and threatens the whole town.

As events unfold, these individuals find themselves forming a de-facto family around Donny, Tracy and the babies, as they fight to protect the young man from the consequences of a spur-of-the-moment decision that could send him to jail.

And in the process of hiding Donny's secret, they must reveal painful truths hidden in their own pasts.

Heartland started as a series of character-based short stories broadcast on Radio New Zealand National, and its success depends on the extent to which individual readers warm to them.

I certainly found them an enjoyable group of people with whom to spend a wet autumnal day.

- Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.

Win a copy
The ODT has five copies of Heartland, by Jenny Pattrick (RRP $36.99), to give away courtesy of Random House. For your chance to win a copy, email helen.speirs@odt.co.nz with your name and postal address in the body of the email, and ''Heartland Book Competition'' in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, May 20.


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