Wulf by Hamish Clayton
Penguin $30

The genesis of this startling first novel is already en route to becoming a New Zealand literary legend. Hawkes Bay-born Hamish Clayton is in his early(ish) 20s, he's a student at Victoria University, and he wrote Wulf after a friend dared him to.

Which is all rather satisfying and apposite. Because the novel weaves around a 19-line, 1000-year-old Anglo-Saxon poem, a riddling, stream-of-consciousness evocation of separation and violence, and around another near-legend: Te Rauparaha, "the Wolf", scourge and bogeyman of much of this country in the early 19th century.

On one of its levels (for Wulf is ambivalent, allusive, and just occasionally annoying), the story is concerned with how Te Rauparaha persuades/frightens the crew of the Elizabeth to carry his Ngati Toa war party from Kapiti - "Entry Island", the Europeans call it - to Banks Peninsula.

Here, they slaughter many Kai Tohu and then sail back with captives and cannibal fare, as the plot swells towards final scenes of betrayal and butchery.

An unnamed sailor from the Elizabeth tells us what he sees, and what his imagination sees via the stories of another seaman, one who "knew too much for a young man", a collector of poems and severed heads.

The novel is also much concerned with the power of narratives, the blood-beat of words, the inevitable distortions of history recalled and rearranged.

It's a world where things shift shape, two cultures flounder to understand each other in a land both beautiful and inimical, names are "fluid, porous", and viewpoints shuttle in time and place.

The writing pulses with urgency and oratory. It's crammed - and intermittently over-stuffed - with imagery. Often it's inspired: "a cloak of darkness, shadowy like an animal's hide, out of which he would attack, the spear in his hand like a bone, the spirit inside him burning". A few times it's indulgent, a few other times it leaves the narrative behind.

The plot is flecked with other legends and emblems: Te Rauparaha crossing the deserts of Ruapehu and Tongariro; a length of kauri that quickens with life; a gift that brings "a faint shudder of sinister meaning".

Venus hangs in the sky like a talisman. The narrator expects those who have spoken to the Wolf to glow with "an otherworldly light".

It's a remarkable début, packed with challenge and virtuosity.

Clayton's next work should be a real event, especially if it has a little more depth and a little less dazzle.

* March is New Zealand Book Month. For details about events, go to nzbookmonth.co.nz
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.