Friday, April 23, 2010

As the Earth Turns Silver

Review of Alison Wong's "As the Earth Turns Silver" (Amazon Vine).


In Fay Weldon’s compelling typology (“Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen”) this is a ‘bad good’ book, one with literary pretensions but important flaws in execution.

Set in the early years of the twentieth century, the story revolves around the Chinese community in Wellington, New Zealand. We have forgotten what full, right-on racism and sexism feel like but Wong has carefully researched the times and has recreated their shocking unpleasantness. The dynamics of the story are grounded however in the dominant Anglo community. Sensitive Katherine McKechnie is emotionally and physically brutalised by her drunken rabidly right-wing brutalist husband Donald. She has a sensitive bright daughter and a hooligan tearaway son who idolises his father. Donald drunkenly falls into the sea one day and drowns, and Katherine and her family are thrown into poverty.

A chance encounter at the Chinese greengrocers throws her into the company and then the arms of Yung – a sensitive, refined, poetic Chinese man - and forbidden romance blooms across the racial divide: it was always going to end in tears. There is also quite a back-story for the Chinese characters, men who have left their families and marital ties behind in China to eke out a living in New Zealand where any kind of advancement always eludes them.

So what has Alison Wong done right? She has a small cast of characters who are distinguishable and have some hinterland. The plot is multilinear and moves along, if not always at a cracking pace. She has a poet’s gift for language and description, and the tensions of the time are starkly drawn. But here is the problem: the characters which dominate this novel are Racism, Sexism with Imperialism a bit-part player. It’s moral indignation which drives this novel along and post-colonial guilt which sent it high up the best-seller list in NZ.

Actually Wong does not care much about her characters, who are merely archetypes for attitudes: either infeasibly noble or dyed-in-the-wool black-hearted. Because the author doesn’t care much about them neither do we and so the novel degenerates into a crafted but ultimately unsatisfying polemic.