Thursday, October 01, 2009


Masterpiece first novel by Wong

Gavin McLean reviews As the Earth Turns Silver.

Alison Wong
Penguin, $37, hbk

Poet Alison Wong's first novel is quite simply a masterpiece.

The framework is deceptively simple, the story of three outsiders.

Two are Chinese vegetable sellers, the brothers Shun and Yung, drawn to the "New Gold Mountain", as they called New Zealand, to make their fortune, only to occupy the social and economic fringe of settler society.

The other, also an outsider, is white, but in pre-social welfare New Zealand sudden widowhood was enough to reduce people like Katherine McKechnie and her young children to poverty.

I won't surprise anyone by revealing that (a) Katherine falls in love with Yung and (b) that the star-crossed lovers' relationship is doomed to fail.

That predictable ending won't harm your enjoyment of the book.

In this novel Wong uses a deceptively conventional narrative form to explore racism, cross-cultural relationships and a woman's role in society, in new and satisfying ways.

A lesser writer might have made a heartfelt but predictable rant about all three.

Wong makes her points, but with a beguiling lightness of touch.

Subtlety, solid research and fine writing are her great strengths.

So, although Lionel Terry struts his stuff as the cardboard racist loner, converting Katherine's late husband, Wong shows the corrosive power of racism more tellingly through a few comments from Katherine's son.

There, you say, that's how it regenerates.

She also catches the city's racism in her description of wealthy Oriental Parade under moonlight.

"The most beautiful street in Wellington. The Chinese street where no Chinese lived."

Historical Wellington is the fourth "character" of the book.

Apart from one short chapter set in China to show the loved ones the brothers left behind, As the Earth Turns Silver is set in the early-20th-century "Empire City", centred on Haining St, the tiny Chinese enclave shunned by respectable Europeans, and in working class Newtown.

Some historical novels go overboard with period detail. Wong does not.

She's done her research, but brings the city's impoverished working-class suburbs alive convincingly without burying the plot and character development under a landslide of detail.

When Katherine and Yung make their clandestine night-time assignations, you can almost hear those new-fangled trams clanking their way around the Basin Reserve, but you don't lose track of what's going on between them.

Wong's greatest strength, though, is her writing style.

She can make peeling an onion profound: "She peeled the skins, held the naked onion in her hand. For a moment she saw a lopped-off globe with no continents or seas, a world that had lost its shape. And all its boundaries. Perhaps intelligence was not a blessing, More a test of character."

The book's final strength is its lyrical writing.

A wonderful book.

- Gavin McLean is a Wellington historian and reviewer.

No comments: