Malla Nunn burst onto the literary scene a little over a decade ago with a brace of historical crime novels featuring exotic copper Emmanuel Cooper.

Nunn’s latest novel, WHEN THE GROUND IS HARD, jettisons detective fiction in favour of a flavoursome coming of age story set in a boarding school in Swaziland.

Taking its title from an African proverb, “When the ground is hard, the women dance.”, the novel centres on the struggle of sixteen year old Adele Joubert, a coloured girl sired by a white man, pitted against pitiless prejudice.

The three tiers of racist tribalism are tackled here – the whites, the coloureds and the blacks – against a background of boarding school bitches and the inherent totem pole pecking order that prevails in any peer pressure cooker.

Taken down a peg or two in the Heathers-like hierarchy of the student status system, Adele is forced to forge an unlikely alliance with Lottie Diamond, a Zulu-Jew, fiercely intelligent and a risk taker, although not reckless.

Nunn’s rendering of this friendship from foundation to framework to edifice is the beautiful spine of the story, a vertebrae that supports the supple flesh of events and situation.

Nunn’s understanding of race, class, gender and culture pervade every page in a pleasing, well paced prose.

Her characters are so vividly drawn they are quickly deposited into the reader’s image bank, as is the description of place and depiction of tone.

WHEN THE GROUND IS HARD may not be a police procedural but Nunn still strays into the mystery genre as the narrative snakes its way into the disappearance of a boy on campus and Adele and her new found friend, Lottie, turn sleuth to solve the absence of a heart grown darker – absconded, abducted, or assassinated?

Death, cruelty and pain are the hard ground that we stand on, says the narrator, the ground itself can’t be replaced but it can be changed. Adele and Lottie see that the ground is too hard and they strive to change it.

WHEN THE GROUND IS HARD by Malla Nunn is published by Allen & Unwin