Set in early 20th century
Wellington, As the Earth Turns Silver charts the lives of two
young immigrants, brothers Yung and Shun, as they eke out a living
as shop owners in order to support their wives and families back in
China. Nearby, local resident Katherine McKechnie struggles to
raise two rebellious children following the recent death of her
husband. Happening upon Yung’s grocery store one day, Katherine is
instantly struck by both his generosity and charm, and an illicit,
unconventional love quickly blossoms between the pair.
Touching on themes of racism,
displacement, the longing for acceptance and the search for a
definable cultural identity, As the Earth Turns Silver is a
remarkably accomplished literary debut from New Zealand author
Alison Wong. The novel’s multi-faceted narrative is presented from
numerous perspectives; each of the protagonists, their families and
acquaintances are afforded the right to tell their own stories, in
their own unique way.
Like other authors unafraid to labour
over their fiction Wong’s words also appear carefully chosen and she
clearly has an eye for finding the poetry in the seemingly mundane.
Sometimes it is the poetry of the defeated (and the book does
contain moments of real tragedy) but ultimately her carefully-hewn
narrative succeed in bringing to life a moving tale of two lovers,
and a love that branches the yawning racial divide of a bygone age.
Drawing on extensive research as well
as her own family history, Wong paints a richly compelling portrait
of these three generations of Chinese settlers. The hardships of
immigrant life are unflinchingly detailed; the cultural and language
barriers, feelings of dispossession, racism both overt and
insidious, such as when Katherine tries to justify her feelings for
the foreigner by musing on Yung’s ‘strong, almost European nose’ and
the fact ‘he doesn’t really look Chinese.’ The book’s
moments of poignancy and gentle joy, however, amply compensate, and
continue to resonate long after the final page has been turned.
While most Australians are familiar
with the plight of early Chinese settlers to our shores through
tales such as that of the Eureka Stockade and its ilk, the
difficulties faced by New Zealand’s miniscule, immigrant Asian populations have gone
largely undocumented in modern fiction. As the Earth Turns
Silver goes some way towards redressing this deficiency, and
stands as a haunting and highly competent debut.