Thursday, October 20, 2011

As the Earth Turns Silver

Two homegrown writing debuts show promise

By Linda Herrick and Edited by Linda Herrick
4:00 AM Saturday Jul 25, 2009

Alison Wong's first novel is modest in style, generous in tone, accomplished in structure; wide-ranging in characters. It's not surprising that overseas publishers are interested.

The Titahi Bay author, almost inevitably a graduate of Victoria University's writing school, sets her story at the start of the 20th century, when a Chinese person on a central Wellington street is an instant target for beggars and bigots, name-calling and plait-pulling.

Racism is one of the book's central motifs, in poems lip-smackingly recited by an apparently cultured lunch guest, stones thrown through a greengrocer's window, a Prime Minister quite unabashed by his membership of an anti-Asian faction.

It's not only Chinese who are targeted. Maori are apparently dying out — and a good thing too, say People In Power. There are also the situations vacant ads: "Maid required for light duties by respectable gentleman. No Irish need apply." And there's the prejudice against women, in the smug misogyny of Truby King et al. But it's "John Chinaman" who is victimised most.

Amid the bigotry, a love affair begins, between Yung the quick-minded, quick-fisted shopkeeper, ridding himself of his long rope of hair and his premises of invading thugs, and Katherine, with her caricature of a bullying husband (who has the decency to fall drunk into Wellington Harbour).

Both parties feel "an emptiness, a hungry space". Both are dissatisfied with convention or tradition, and are ready for transformation.

Things start under a cabbage tree by the Basin Reserve, and lead via delight and terror to an ending on a shop floor.

A quick shuttle of chapters keeps the plot pulsing along. Wong spreads complex nets of love and grief that catch up nearly every character. She does an impressively unshowy job of capturing the varied voices.

Period details feel just right. There's Mrs Newman the emancipist, fuming against being addressed by her husband's name and celebrating the first women in the Olympics. There's the jingoistic marching and cheering as WWI is declared. And there's a splendidly-evoked Haining Street, with "the smell of garlic and ginger", where a European shoots an Asian walking home, then defends himself with the argument that a Chinese "is not a man".

You could suggest that the ending is a bit prolonged and unremitting. You could also suggest that there's a whiff of Mills & Boon about the love affair, with its lingering glances, meaningful hand-touchings, and fireworks going off inside. But this is a striking and successful debut. Bring on Alison Wong's next one(s).
As the Earth Turns Silver $37: reviewed by David Hill
David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

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