Sunday, September 06, 2009

Alison Wong,
Penguin - $37

Reviewed by by guest reviewer Maggie Rainey-Smith.

Already, within the title, is a hint of the poetic strength of the writer. Although, she attributes finding this intriguing title (a Chinese proverb), to Kate Camp – such is the generosity in the list of acknowledgements at the end of this novel.
Where to begin… At first, I read, as a writer, seeking the truth, looking for the tricks and the turns, ignoring the meaning, simply trying to work out how? How did she do that, say this, and is it working? And, at first, I was deceived by the simplicity of action, the briefness of some chapters, and failed to engage entirely with the story – so intrigued was I, by the how?

Each chapter initially, is a series of snapshots that place the characters in their historical context, poetic images, as opposed to lengthy introductions.

I had in the back of my mind the words of some of my super-smart friends in my No.1 Book Group, on reading ‘The Secret River” by Kate Grenville “She’s showing off how much she knows about history”, and how much it irritated some of them (not me, I might add), but they are better read than me, and they’d heard most of it all before (the stuff in London anyway) they wanted more from the characters.

Well, Alison Wong does show off, but not obtrusively, but somehow and beguilingly most satisfactorily and in what looks at times, almost too easy. I took umbrage at first with the briefness of some chapters (think a poet at work) until I stopped wondering what she was doing and brought my own imagination to the gaps, and spaces, the lovely historical air that floats between the words, giving you room as a reader, to imagine.

Perhaps I should introduce the characters to you but this is a love story on a New Zealand-Chinese canvas, where carrots, cabbage, onion, and most particularly the biblical apple “With each apple he took a pair of secateurs and cut each stalk to the same neat length, then took the soft green apple-paper and wrapped it back around the fruit like a nest.” are rendered poetic. The illicit (perhaps to some, even illegal), love between a white, widowed, Wellington woman and a young Chinese immigrant, with a wife and child back in China, at the turn of the century (late Nineteenth, early Twentieth).

Almost everything about this book is rewarding, from the beautiful cover, to the poetic prose, the briefness (yes, eventually, I embraced this) of some chapters, the evocative chapter titles (If the Wind Changes, The Little Orange Book, Slices of Crow, Lantern, Melon Ridge), and the spacious typeset, the whole shebang really, and somehow through the spare and beautiful prose, a sense of generosity is engendered around love, tragedy, the harshest of times, and yet overwhelmingly, love is at the core of this story. Katherine and Mr Wong, who share little in common, except their need and their loneliness, moon cakes and moonlight – the earth turning silver.

I’d just read Laura Kroetsch in the latest issue of Booknotes, lamenting the loss of smart and astute fiction, writing “My suspicion is that domestic fiction has left us with a literary blandness” and “I’m tired of reading about people who never seem to have jobs…”

Alison Wong’s characters have jobs, they are not leading leisured middle-class lives, and this book does not become mired in a romping story just to explain history – it is a tender, tragic love story first, and insight into a by-gone era, but not so by-gone that we haven’t heard of the racially unfair Poll Tax (so recent is the 2002 NZ Government’s apology)… and still, our suburbs are filled with Chinese fruiterers, maybe fourth generation families who came looking for the “New Gold Mountain” - our histories and lives are interlinked - just far enough away to alleviate our guilt, and close enough to fascinate and inform us.

I don’t think Alison breaks new literary ground (Eleanor Catton), but I think she rescues the reader from what Laura Kroetsch calls “an acute case of fiction fatigue”.
Recently I read “Dreamers of the Day” by Mary Doria Russell and although the style of writing is quite different, I felt the same sense of satisfaction of inhabiting and enjoying a fictional history but knowing too, that I was in the safe hands of someone who knew a lot more than I did, but was not about to beat me over the head with their didactic stick. Alison Wong has done her homework, completed her research and it is there, like any important piles on any important structure. This is not a leaky home, the redundant historical facts roll off the sloping roof like rainwater, but you hear the patter. You know it has rained.

There was one chapter, where I almost felt berated… Better Than A Dog – but I also marvelled how the author got away with it. It is when the Katherine who is working for Mrs Newman an Emancipist who has taken pity on Katherine and her daughter and who confronts Katherine with the facts of her affair with Mr Wong. This chapter is a barely three pages, and it is more or less, a one-sided conversation in which Mrs Newman reveals how much she knows – but also within that conversation revealed is the general social temperature of the day in regard to this affair “He doesn’t live in Haining Street? Katherine, it’s a matter of appearances. He’s a Chinaman. That makes him worse than a Jew and maybe a little better than a dog.” Throughout this chapter, Katherine doesn’t speak but so much is revealed that we’ve already guessed at. But in the end, instead of berated, I felt envy for the deftness of pen that somehow disobeys the “show don’t tell” theory, and shows, by telling.

I guess a poet can get away with this sort of thing – because she doesn’t need filler words, and lengthy wasteful dialogue, no hastily spread concrete to hold the blocks together… the blocks stand up all by themselves, unaided and blocks is far too unpoetic, they are mini sculptures really that unite finally to create a work of art.

Here, try this… “Every woman has two faces. One a fine white porcelain – a slipping smoothness, carefully shaped, dressed for the eye. The other big and raw and strong, ingrained with the hardness of life.”

The title for me is an evocation of what it is to live in Wellington… early morning, early evening, anytime really - watching the water, the sky and the hills… ‘As The Earth Turns Silver’

Alison Wong weaves in real characters from history, in particular (Edward) Lionel Terry, who murdered Joe Kum-yung in Haining Street, Wellington on 24 September 1905 (I’m quoting here from her own acknowledgements) which is more or less where the novel begins… and also most poignantly for me, she states that her “Paternal great-grandfather, Wong Wei-jung (Wong Way Ching) was brutally murdered in Wellington in 1914. The case was never solved.”

I work in a bookshop and it’s walking off the shelves, so go and buy yourself a copy – support local literature. We are so fortunate.

Maggie Rainey-Smith is a Wellington novelist/poet/bookseller and occasional guest blogger on Beattie's Book Blog.
And for an account of the book's launch back in July at Unity Books, Wellington link here.

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