"Donny Mac was released at Easter time, about a month before Pansy Holloway, also known as Nightshade, disappeared for good."

The opening lines of Heartland are satisfyingly reminiscent of Ronald Hugh Morrieson's The Scarecrow, alluding to a grisly mystery and, similarly, the action is set in a small town occupied by a cast of endearing, yet disparate, characters.

Taking place in the fictitious central North Island town of Manawa (Maori for heart), this is quintessential heartland New Zealand. Manawa, formerly a bustling timber town, is virtually a ghost town today, as are so many real-life rural towns of its ilk. During the ski season, the population ramps up with the overflow that can't be accommodated in the more popular towns of Ohakune and Raetihi, although the winter influx of holiday-making city folk isn't always embraced by the locals, for a variety of legitimate reasons.

For a small town, Manawa is home to a large and colourful cast of personalities and, once they're all established, the story rockets along at the perfect pace. Donny Mac, from that intriguing opening sentence, has recently returned home, having done time for a crime he didn't commit but, not being the sharpest tool in the shed, he was unable to stand up for himself, so quietly did his lag instead.


Returning to Manawa, fit as a fiddle and ready for rugby, the anger management techniques learned in the clink stand him in good stead. Regularly he'll find himself counting to three to quell the urge to use his fists - happily his time inside wasn't entirely wasted. When he arrives home to find the drunk and obstreperous Nightshade ensconced in his house, pregnant and claiming the baby is his, he comes up against the first of many moments he needs to use this new trick to quell his rage.

And, although the baby could be anyone's, Donny is the softest touch to finger as father and, being a decent man, he's keen to make a good fist of fatherhood. Next door you'll find the three mysterious and elderly sisters who have recently moved to the town and imagine their astonishment when they learn they might have a family connection with Donny.

Loners and long-time locals Violet and Bull care for each other in their idiosyncratic ways.The story of their friendship is a delight. As for the odious Di Masefield, every small town needs a bossy, busybody, know-it-all whose aim is to be on every committee - her oar is in everyone's business - although even she can be likeable on occasion.

Young Lovey is a divine invention, a wild child who appears to control the forces of nature; despite the poor mite's mother's crippling depression, Lovey is a tower of strength. And then there's the Virgin Tracey, another standout character with a back-story so sad, tears will spring to your eyes.

A small town on the brink of extinction is the perfect backdrop for the stories that unfold. There's the unexpected blended family, two single parents, each exactly what the other needs. Enter a film crew shooting an epic of some sort, throw in a serious misadventure, a sprinkling of secrets and lies and pretty soon it's not just the mountain threatening to blow.

On the face of it, Manawa might appear to be a sleepy little hollow, but scratch the surface and there's intrigue, dissent and mystery everywhere you look.

Charming, quirky, dark and fiery, Heartland opens the lid on an authentically rustic world, making a read that's entertaining and heartbreaking. For all its lightness, there are deeper, darker threads woven through the book - secrets are buried, lies are uncovered - everyone in Manawa is damaged somehow but, for all that, their hearts are mostly pure. Heartland is a rollicking good read.

Heartland by Jenny Pattrick (Black Swan $36.99).
Jenny Pattrick will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival on May 16 and 17.
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