Reviewed by MARGIE THOMSON

It must be a deliberate irony that Chidgey, whose physical image is so defined by her hair, has written a novel whose plot turns on an obsession with the stuff. It is the profession of the central character, a French perruquier or wigmaker; a defining characteristic of the main female character; and a preoccupation of many of the minor characters who seek the transformative powers of that maker of hairpieces.

Under Chidgey's treatment, hair becomes a truly lustrous subject, rich with possibilities for plot and character, containing dark, tangled depths in which reside our instinctive feeling that hair, somehow, is to do with the distasteful, even gruesome, secrets of the body.

In fact, on the strength of this novel, her third and best so far, Chidgey could tackle any subject and produce something wonderful from it. She has that gift of the imagination that finds metaphor, contiguity and paradox wherever she looks, and a seemingly innate feel for structuring events, times and historical detail to make one whole, satisfying narrative out of a myriad unexpected parts.

I think she had a lot of fun writing this novel. It's certainly fun to read, and it runs as easily as a train on a smooth track, delightfully lubricated with her evocative imagery. Such as? Well, how about (at random): squashed shoes "deflated like cakes taken too soon from the oven"; a snail collector who "retreats to sleep's thin shell"; a bird hunter who lost a finger to an alligator, has gaps in his teeth and thinning hair: "a great deal of this man was missing".

Choosing Tampa, Florida as the setting for The Transformation rather than, say, Wanganui or Christchurch, reads like a liberation. Freed from the expectations of her New Zealand audience, she can make what she will of this foreign place, and of course she spins it into gold.

At the time of the novel's setting, the last years of the 19th century, it's a frontier town, where ambition and possibility run rampant. Everyone is free to make themselves anew. Bricklayers dine with society hostesses, and not only dreams but lies come true.

It's an emblem of that age, and we, privileged by the passing of time, can read it backwards and see it for what it was - and, by implication perhaps, wonder about the madnesses of our own time (self-help books, perhaps?). Phrenology, spiritualism, the stultified etiquette of the day - Chidgey wryly incorporates them all.

Jack Unger is a young bricklayer hand-picked in 1891 to help build the magnificent Tampa Bay Hotel, itself " dream" of transportation magnate Henry B. Plant. Jack and his new wife Marion migrate to the swampy, steamy south and eventually decide to stay and try their luck, post-hotel, at growing oranges.

Not only do biblical-type disasters occur - hurricanes, ruinous frosts - but Jack dies and Marion is left to her widowhood, in weeds for almost the entire duration of the novel. It's clear she needs a transformation of some kind or other.

In the meantime, making his way towards Tampa from France is creepy Monsieur Lucien Goulet III, wigmaker, "able to transform that which is base and dead into an object of beauty which animates the wearer". As a study in sociopathy he is superb, his secret history and preoccupations gradually emerging from behind his slick facade.

He will soon catch sight of the white-blond hair of Marion Unger and become infatuated with it. His desire to create a masterpiece in her honour - a glorious "transformation", as his hairpieces are known - brings the story's strands together and drives the melodramatic ending.

The third player is Raphael, a lonely refugee from the war in Cuba. Desperate to make something of himself he becomes employed by Goulet as a forager for hair among the trash heaps of Tampa - and other, more macabre places. He throws a fresh perspective on the crucial matter of metamorphosis when he insists, "I am no thief. I am an entrepreneur".

This urge to transform is everywhere apparent: "Appear what you wish to be," exhorts The Splendour of Eve, a self-help guide to women that assumes a significant place in the story. And, sinisterly, "The mind is easily deceived by the eye", as Goulet murmurs to a customer.

The vivid cast of minor characters who frequent Goulet's shop are hilarious, memorable creations, deft sketches who take on life after just a few sentences: Elisinda Flood, beautiful and duplicitous; Mrs Rim and her overly adorned shih-tzu.

There's still a whisper, especially in Chidgey's characterisation of Marion, of the cool, rather clinical detachment that bothered me slightly in her second novel, Golden Deeds, but it's mostly developed into something far more appealing, a genuine control of her material and a wry, pointed wit that permeates every scene. With her famous goal of "two novels before I'm 30" behind her (just), maybe she's relaxed a bit. The more mature Chidgey is looking really excellent.

VUP, $29.95