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Lily's Cupola, the latest book by New Zealand novelist Bronwyn Tate, is probably the best of the author's four novels - which in itself is enormous praise.

The protagonist, Lily, is an octogenarian who came to New Zealand with her husband from England, some time after World War II. She is joined on the remote property where she has lived alone since being widowed, by her grandson Nat. He has fallen out with the latest of his father's girlfriends, and comes to Lily full of grandiose ideas and ambitions, including making a short film, and building Lily a cupola in her garden.

An increasingly tender relationship evolves between the two, and this, together with Nat's increasing maturity and Lily's own complex and clouded history is revealed in in a series of letters from Lily to her estranged sister Iris. In this one-sided correspondence she recalls the past, relates the present and describes the quilt of her life that she is in the process of making, along with comments on Iris' own incompetence in sewing - the book is full of quilting imagery and information that add texture and depth, like this:

The Trip Around the World is a variation on the one-patch quilt I've told you about already. Your pieces are the same size, but arranged differently. You start in the middle and work your way out, each row made up of one or two different colours. So you get a concentric design. Mine has brilliant yellow at its centre and works its way through green and blue to violet at the edges. Keep it in mind, Iris, as this is one I think you could manage.

There is a third story running through the book - that of Flossie, a London woman, who lives a dreary council-flat existence and recalls her own history shortly after the war. At first, it seems unrelated, but as the book progresses it is sewn in, like one of the pieces of Lily's quilt, to make a seamless, essential part of the overall pattern.

This is a beautifully-written novel, rich with humour, which is paradoxically gentle and shocking, as we slowly come to learn Lily's great secret, and encompass it as part of the whole, fallible but strong human being she is.

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