In her first novel to be published here, this New Zealand author monitors the past and present of Clara--a young woman dying of TB in an Auckland slum-dungeon of WW II outcasts. Clara starts her growing-up as the last and best-loved child of ""batty,"" widowed Mumma, living on the wrong side of the tracks in stodgy Hamilton. So why, then, does Mumma pass Clara over, to be raised through schooldays by married sister Winnie? Is it because Winnie has married ""up,"" joining the status-proud family of husband Reg? If so, the idea is a misbegotten one--because the Depression changes Winnie's dream-house and ""good wife"" ideal (sensible shoes, lots of preserves) into the bare-cupboard outpost of a deserted wife-and-mother. So Clara drifts through school, foregoing achievement for a warming sociability, falling in love at 15 with Robin, rebellious son of an ever-so-respectable doctor. But though the lovers finally win their battle to marry (Robin's family attempts to shake Clara loose), Clara realizes that her love for Robin has ""just stopped""--and she compulsively starts breaking boundaries: seducing brother-in-law Reg (indirectly causing his death, perhaps); leaving for Auckland and ""Paddy's Puzzle""--a seven-story crazy-house tenement of the poor, the lost, the quietly boozing, prostitutes. . . with a constant outdoor obbligato of screaming children and periodic invasions by American soldiers in search of women and black-market goods. Soon, too ill to work, Clara accepts the caring shelter of Paddy's Puzzle, living for the visits of generously loving Ambrose, a black Marine. She resists sister Winnie's terrifying attempts to separate her from this dream-like attachment. And, after mulling over her past (Mumma's dismal secret, Winnie's life within ""the sins of others""), Clara is able to confront both mortality and the death of love--finding that she and Winnie ""have inhabited the same warm darkness."" Shrewdly balanced between earthy tenderness and the deadfall trauma of disillusionment: a grave yet limber narrative--and a very welcome import.