Inheritance by Jenny Pattrick
Among Jenny Pattrick’s innumerable talents is the ability to fully embed her novels’ characters in place and time: in her debut novel, The Denniston Rose, and its sequel, Heart of Coal, she explored the lives of miners on the West Coast when Denniston, now a ghost town, was a booming coal producer.
Those novels are two of the most successful in New Zealand publishing history, and Pattrick’s status as a bestseller undoubtedly contributed to her selection as the 2009 Katherine Mansfield Fellow.
It was while undertaking the prestigious fellowship in Menton, France, that Pattrick wrote much of Inheritance, which is set in two nations (New Zealand and Samoa) and times (1990 and 1966 respectively). She says that although it might seem strange writing about Samoa while living in the south of France, she found it easy, in a foreign land, to reflect on her own experience of 1960s Samoa, where Pattrick lived for two years as a young mother just after independence.
“The sort of ‘distance nostalgia’ I felt when living in Samoa was not unlike the feeling I had last year . . . in France,” she says. “When I entered that plain concrete box of a [French] villa, I was in Samoa. I could smell the frangipani and hear the surf on the reef. Strange!”
Pattrick’s knack for vividly rendering a specific place in time is on full display in Inheritance, which begins in an art exhibition room in Invercargill in 1990, when a Samoan woman, Elena Levamanaia, recognizes a slight Pakeha woman walking nearby as Jeanie Roper, a dear but long-absent friend she made in Samoa 25 years. But Jeanie doesn’t respond when Elena calls her name, and Elena (a warm, loving and immensely appealing character) quickly makes the link between the exhibiting artist, Francesca Hope, and her old friend. Jeanie is Francesca’s mother, and now goes by the name Ann Hope.
From here, Pattrick artfully chips away at the mystery of what drove Jeanie back to New Zealand with a tiny baby, leaving behind in Samoa her husband Stuart, who was seriously maimed after a brutal encounter with Elena’s brother Teo. What happened between Jeanie and Stuart? Why has Jeanie told her daughter that her father was Italian, when it is plain to Elena that Francesca is half-Samoan and half-palagi? Who is the sinister man now pestering Jeanie as she tries to maintain her quiet life?
These questions are answered in a carefully structured 300 pages that, while telling the ostensible story, also explore the theme of truth. How much do people need to know about their own history and that of those they love? Especially clever is the contrast between what is revealed to the reader and what the characters are told about themselves. It’s a direction that risks ending in the implausible or contrived, but to read a Pattrick story is to be in the hands of a master.
Inheritance is above all a novel of family secrets, but it is also a glorious depiction of island life in a unique point in time and a story told so well that it can only come from experience – no amount of research could equip a writer as well as Pattrick’s knowledge of Samoa does here.
Adding to the scent of authenticity is the reference to actual events that occurred in the time of which she writes, including a devastating hurricane, a filariasis campaign, and the switch to decimal currency. And at the end, there is the pleasant discovery of a glossary of Samoan words. It adds up to a captivating novel that deserves as wide a readership as its predecessors.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewed by Stephanie Jones
Published by Penguin