Inheritance by Jenny Pattrick
Black Swan $29.99

Mostly written while she was the Katherine Mansfield Fellow in Menton, Jenny Pattrick's sixth novel is divided between two demanding, distant settings: Southland in the 1990s and Samoa in the 1960s. Both are isolated by geography and social expectations; both are places where "you get used to being watched", which of course makes for a cornucopia of gossip and relationships.

The plot is driven by more of Pattrick's stalwart or steely female protagonists. There's Elena, tugged by two cultures; Ann/Jeanie, defiant when an unshaven, obsessive shambles from the past catches up with her; Simone, as colourful as her tropical garden, and handy with sharp kitchen implements.

And there's the rather marvellous monster Gertrude, embittered widow of a cacao planter, manipulative by nature and through need, racist and reactionary. She has all the charm of a blunt axe: "... no one had ever survived more than an hour in her company without invoking her disapproval".

To prevent her plantation passing to a Samoan family, Gertrude imports a trio of rellies from New Zealand. They're not exactly cherished: one is a brute, another a victim, while "John is illegitimate. Born to my demented sister as the result of rape". But they'll do for her vendetta.

The large cast are nearly all ill at ease with their lives. They don't fit into their societies, families, relationships. They've often exiled themselves from kin or country.

Between the lush covers, an energetic plot includes a child with ambivalent ancestry, a hunting and a haunting, a fright in Florence and a gunshot in Gore. Revelations, reprises, and the odd creaky coincidence lead to an ending which avoids the easy options.

Pattrick evokes scenes with colour and confidence: the banana boat arrives in Apia; White Sunday transforms a church; a technicolour hurricane has lightning flashing, thunder smashing and trees crashing.

The writing is vigorous, orthodox, occasionally adjectival. Characters sometimes exchange utterances rather than hold conversations, but the style is content to serve the subject rather than showcase itself, and the result is an accessible, undemanding read.

As well as the stock historical novel motifs of lost love, long partings and reconciliations, there are deeper, more resonant elements — identity, cultural change, sex and shame and stalking.

It was widely noted (and sometimes sniffed at) that Pattrick was the first "popular" writer to be awarded the Katherine Mansfield Fellowship. Inheritance indicates that she was an excellent choice.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer.