You could dismiss the current deluge of works of New Zealand historical fiction as a mere fad were it not for the interesting and ingenious things our authors are doing with it.

Memorable examples are Hamish Clayton's incantatory Wulf, Eleanor Catton's highly laminated The Luminaries, Lawrence Patchett's boundary-crossing short stories - and now Rosetta Allan's superb debut, Purgatory.

Unpromisingly, the main character of Purgatory is dead. John Finnigan was killed along with his mother and two of his brothers by James Stack in a notorious incident historically known as the 1865 Otahuhu Murders. The dead Finnigans are haunting their backyard, biding their in-between time, as John's Ma explains to him, until their remains have been found and their sins cleansed by prayer. Stack, the man who murdered them, is living in their cottage, brazening out the suspicions of neighbours, surviving Finnigans and the local constabulary.

Purgatory is largely James Stack's back story, from his childhood in Ireland apprenticed to his father as he murdered and buried "wanderers" - fugitives from famine-stricken regions of Ireland - through his time with the 65th Regiment of the British Army fighting the Land Wars in New Zealand, leading up to the night of the murders. Despite the hideous crime you know he will go on to commit, it is hard not to pity, even like him, once you've got to know him. While you can deplore the choices he makes, it's hard not to think of him simply as a soul born (in terms that Catton would appreciate) under an unlucky star.


For one of the strengths of this novel is the supreme attention to historical detail that Allan has brought to bear. The grinding injustice of the plight of the Irish in the Great Famine, the brutality of "transportation" as a 19th century form of criminal punishment, the rawness and unfairness of life in early colonial New Zealand, are all beautifully rendered, as are the struggles of individuals to maintain their decency in the face of it all.

Despite what appears to have been an intensive research effort, all that legwork is hidden, in best Victorian traditions, under the skirts of the story. Some of the detail is picturesque, such as the way the fighting between the British and the Maori became almost sporting, with the Maori collegially calling "Duck, Ickity-Pips" to warn their opponents in the 65th Regiment that they were about to fire a volley.

The other strength is the characterisation, accomplished with a talent for capturing quirks of human behaviour, movement and appearance, along with an acute ear for dialogue, effort that isn't spared even for minor characters. You believe in all of them: everyone knows a character like the unsavoury and compulsively psychopathic DeRose, who dogs James Stack's steps.

And of course, dealing as it does with the hereafter, you appreciate that the greatest challenge that Allan faced in her novel was to get the metaphysics right. While you might not finish up a believer in ghosts, or the afterlife, or purgatory, or heaven, for that matter - which Ma Finnigan expects will be "like Tyrone ... only without the trouble" - the otherworld that Allan creates is plausible enough to raise goosebumps.

Above all, what Purgatory achieves is the evocation of the hardness and loneliness of the lives and deaths of our ancestors, and you put it down with a sigh of nostalgia, the ache both of the past and the passed.

Purgatory by Rosetta Allan (Penguin $30).