"Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict," writes Robert McKee of Story Seminar fame. Fair enough; obvious enough.

There's no lack of conflict - political, cultural, familial, internal - in Suraya Dewing's second novel. It's the early 1980s and a Springbok rugby tour is about to fracture conservative New Zealand.

Sophie, whose father is furious about losing a million-dollar land deal at Bastion Point because of "a bunch of malevolent Maoris", is enrolling at university, where she wants to find out more about her country's history. She does. She finds out even more about lean, six-foot-tall, shining-haired drummer and keyboardist Joe, whom she lusts after at the Orientation Ball. Joe is a Maori cop from the provinces. A St Cuth's girl and an Opunake boy: there's another promising conflict.

Interspersed with scenes of an anguished tangi and another, century-old confrontation at Taranaki's potent Parihaka, the plot follows the young couple as they make a choice glowing with youthful idealism and then find themselves tested by all manner of turbulent loyalties.

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The right to play rugby collides with the right to be free and equal; the way of Te Whiti clashes with the ways of Black Power. Frictions and factions within one student flat become a microcosm of those challenging the whole country.

It brings some mischievous parallels and inversions. Privileged, principled Sophie gets quite a shock to find that she may not measure up to the expectations of Joe's family. Nice white boys James and Paul compete in brutishness with figures in gang chains and studs. There's vivid coverage of the infamous, abandoned Waikato game and subsequent, equally ugly scenes at Eden Park. A dramatic, intermittently melodramatic murder bursts into the narrative.

Dewing cares for her characters, which is always a good way to engage readers but she also can't resist stepping in to point out their underlying fears or overlying wardrobe, which is rather less engaging.

The writing wobbles. Adjectives and adverbs need slashing; cadences lurch and stumble. The author keeps telling us instead of showing us. There's really no substitute for a skilled, severe editor. Limited success as fiction, but there's no doubting Dewing's sincerity, her concern for people, places and the tribulations they endure.

A relevant reminder of the polarities that still mark and mar New Zealand.

Bend With The Wind
By Suraya Dewing
(Rangitawa Publishing, $35)