Nicky Pellegrino is delighted by all the quirky characters in this Kiwi novel.

The thing I like most about Jenny Pattrick's novels is that I don't know what I'm going to like about them. Each is quite different from the last. Some take us to the past; others are very much about the world we live in.

What they do have in common are this best-selling Wellington author's light touch with prose and the richly imagined characters that fair leap off the page.

Pattrick's latest book, Heartland (Random House) is a quirky and heartwarming tale about a bunch of misfits living in small-town New Zealand.

The fictional hamlet of Manawa is a backwater, not far from Mt Ruapehu. In the winter ski season the population swells with out-of-towners. The rest of the time it belongs to a few locals who all know each other's business.


The story opens with a young man called Donny Mac who is out of prison and home. Donny is a simple and likeable chap, easily taken advantage of. Several people are looking out for him, gruff but kindly Vera and former rugby star Bull Howie among them.

Then there is a girl called Nightshade who is pregnant and swears Donny is the father.

Although everyone is convinced she is lying, Donny accepts responsibility for her and the child.

Nightshade is in fact a nightmare. Abusive and drunken, she makes Donny's life hell.

Then she disappears, leaving him to care for the child with the help of newcomers to town, a shy solo mum known as the Virgin Tracey and the three ancient McAneny sisters.

Almost everyone in Manawa has a secret or a hidden shame. Donny's secret threatens to destroy the happy life he is making for himself.

Pattrick says she based Manawa on the Central Plateau settlement of Rangataua where her family has a home. Some of the characters are drawn from real-life, too. Perhaps as a result, Heartland is a book written with a huge amount of affection, as well as humour and grace.

At the heart of it is a moral conundrum - what is more important, the letter of the law or the mercy of kindness? What really is doing the honourable thing?

The inhabitants of Manawa are generously endowed with community spirit. Vera cooks Bull's dinner every night and wheels it to his place in a pram. Everyone cares about Mona Kingi, who suffers from depression, and adores her engaging daughter Lovey. Even empire-building, busybody Di Masefield isn't entirely without redeeming features. To me, it seems like a somewhat utopian vision of small-town life. I'm not convinced that real people are so caring or connected - but then I live in the city and am happy to be proved wrong.

Whatever Pattrick is writing about she brings alive. She's a consummate storyteller and her novels are packed with emotion. Heartland is a pleasure to read. I reckon it would also make a wonderful movie.