Saturday, October 9, 2010

Exquisitely silver - Alison Wong's book

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I've finally got around to reading this book - winner of the fiction category of the NZ Post Book Awards. The author Alison Wong - a poet shortlisted for the same awards three years ago - has also won the Janet Frame Award for fiction.

Not long after she won the Frame Award and before she took off to live in Australia, I had the pleasure of sharing a meal with Alison and Janet Frame's niece, Pamela Gordon, at the appropriately named Red Head cocktail bar in Wellington. I vowed then to read her book. I gave it to my sister-in-law for Christmas instead.

Of Chinese/European descent, Angie loved the descriptions of the life of the Chinese family in Wellington just after the turn of the century heading into World War I. She particularly mentioned the food - the same food she remembered her grandmother cooking.

Angie lent me the book back and told me to read it, but life and other more bossy books elbowed their way into my reading space. This week I made the time.

It is a deceptive book. The prose is simple and evocative and tells an age-old tale of love across the barriers of prejudice and hate with intelligence and restraint.

Katherine McKechnie is married to an alcoholic prejudiced against the local Chinese community with their fruit shops and opium dens (not unlike many of the Europeans at the time.) He is a friend of Lionel Terry - an historical figure who was found guilty of murdering a Chinese man on racist grounds in Wellington in 1905. These attitudes influence Katherine's children, especially son Robbie, even after their father drowns and leaves them to manage on their own.

Released from her abusive marriage, Katherine begins a gentle and secret love affair with the local Chinese greengrocer, Yung. Unacceptable to the European community at the time, it goes on for years beneath the radar, or so Katherine thinks. One day, with World War I erupting in Europe, tragedy quietly steps into the lives of Katherine and Yung.

The love between these two people is exquisitely and convincingly drawn. There is little language between them but somehow so much more is said than that. As Katherine speaks of Yung, you can feel the same tingling in the skin, in the bones, of inexplicable but ineluctable love. The scenes in Yung's shop are delicious for their simplicity and completeness and the feelings they evoke.

Has the slicing of an apple or pear or pineapple ever meant so much?

The Wellington setting is drawn in the same way - simple, exact, full to brimming with places and names I see nearly every day: Cuba Street, Buckle Street, Haining Street, Taranaki Street, Adelaide Road. And then there are the wider political themes of women's rights/the vote, racism, xenophobia, the Great War.

A wonderful reading experience in so many ways, I read As the Earth Turns Silver for a couple of hours in the sun yesterday and had that  giddy Alice-out-the-rabbit-hole feeling when I emerged. Literary blogger Dovegrey Reader felt the same about the book especially enjoying its lack of showiness and verbal pyrotechnics (link at the end). It is what it is, and I have a feeling I will keep going back to it in my mind for weeks to come.

However, walking off down the street with the book (such a beautiful book) under my arm, I felt a niggle that grew. I had been absorbed - completely so - to the point where 'time passed' (a number of years from the start of the relationship to the beginning of WWI.) From then on I felt my mind drifting a little. I felt as if Alison had largely avoided the tricky stuff: the developing tensions and misunderstandings of a relationship - especially one like this - in favour of pushing on.

The tale felt too simple, I guess. I wanted more of what was skimming below the surface of the love-prickled skin: yes, the tensions, misunderstandings, but also the daily ins and outs of it. The meetings, what the children observe and know, the anguish Katherine feels choosing between Yung and her children - and how that affects them in the relentless intimacy of family life, how it builds in Robbie to a point of terrible hate (the confusion he must feel with the hate butted up against his mother's love).  Alison touches on all of this, but the touch, at times, feels too gentle, perhaps too polite - at a respectful distance from the murkiness and moral complexity at base of a story like this.

The book's been a hit in so many ways - award-winner, best-seller, much-loved by so many, including the owner of the bookshop where I work: Joanna Ponder (she said it would win the Book Awards months before anyone else did.) My hat is off to Alison. She is a talented writer and I am waiting for her next book. I will buy two copies, one for my sister-in-law.

 Here's the post by Dovegrey Reader whose son was in Wellington while she was reading As the Earth Turned Silver, and sent her photos of the streets in the book! Great stuff.

1 comment:

Vanda Symon said...

I shall have to add this book to my growing TBR mountain. I know Pamela was very persuasive in telling me I would enjoy it, and must read it. I always love your thoughtful reviews.