Don't be fooled by Jenny Pattrick's new novel, Skylark (Black Swan, $37.99). It's a romp of a read, a page-turner that's incredibly easy to whizz through. It takes a writer of considerable skill, plus a lot of painstaking effort, to construct a blend of history and fiction such as this, and do such a wonderful job.
Skylark is the story of New Zealand's fledgling entertainment industry. It's set in the mid- to late-1800s and presented as a collection of archives put together by a fictional researcher, Eleanor de Mountfort, whose comments appear throughout the story. The main character, the irrepressible Lily Alouette, is also fictional. The daughter of French street acrobats who die while trying their luck in the Australian goldfields, she finds a new family when she joins a travelling circus.
Lily is a performer to her very bones. She trains as a bareback artiste and adores her new life entertaining wide-eyed audiences. But when the circus travels to New Zealand, disaster strikes - a horse spooks and Lily falls from its back, breaking her ankle.
Misfortune leads to a new opportunity, as a stage performer and singer, and it also propels Lily into the arms of a man, handsome young groom Jack Lacey.
She cares for Jack but she is reluctant to give up the performer's life and settle down. Other obstacles lie in the way of their love: a scheming young woman and, worst of all, a villain by the name of Bully Hayes who Lily dislikes instinctively yet somehow can't resist. We know from the beginning that she does end up with Jack but there are plenty of surprises for the reader in the route she takes to get there - and the unconventional outcome.
Although Lily has her setbacks and tragedies, this is a joyful read on the whole. Pattrick's writing is confident and clear. She has managed to weave Lily's story seamlessly with real events and figures from our theatrical history. It's a novel that moves around a lot and takes in other aspects of our past - goldmining, battles, disaster and crime. But, like all good historical novels, it wears its research lightly and it would take a far more informed person than me to detect the joins between fact and fiction.
Pattrick herself is from a performing family - her parents were involved in Wellington theatre, as was she. Her affection for this world shines through in her story.
The book is a complete delight to read and has been beautifully designed, which adds to the experience.
Pattrick hits No 1 consistently on bestseller lists with her novels but tends to be overlooked at award-giving time, which is a shame. I'd rate her as one of this country's most talented storytellers and it would be good to see that acknowledged at last. Skylark is her seventh novel and, while I haven't read them all, I think there's every chance this is her best yet. A worthwhile and entertaining read.