I have just finished a splendid book, Alison Wong’s novel ‘As The Earth Turns Silver’
‘lovers are light
on the earth
they do not understand
These lovely lines are from a poem in Wong’s ‘Cup’ her first book of poems published in 2006. Three years later her first novel ‘was published to considerable applause. Indeed in the recent awards it was declared the best Kiwi novel of that year.
To my regret, indeed shame, I did not get round to reading it until recently. I always intended to. I had read and greatly enjoyed the novels of Maxine Hong Kingston. Born in California she’d written a series about the experiences of Chinese immigrants to the States. Those books helped me understand the opening sentence of Wong’s novel. ‘It is a lonely place where the Jesus-ghosts preach.’
There’s a powerful haunting sadness about the novel. Part of that sadness is the radiance of the central love affair, a cross-cultural relationship. From its beginning the reader knows it will end in tragedy. The Jesus-ghosts ‘preach about love … yet in the street the people sneer and call out and spit.’
Is this the lot of the immigrant? Curnow’s lines spring to mind
'Bloodily or tenderly striven
To rearrange the given,
It was something different, something
Nobody counted on.'
There are books I read and books I burn through in which I want to know what happens. The trouble with the race through approach is that it leaves less time to appreciate in this instance the liquid prose. I kept telling myself to slow down and savour the language.
There is a brief chapter called ‘The Cable Car’. It is one of the crux chapters of the novel. There is quite a lengthy setting for the chapter. The actual ride up and down and what happened at the top is not described. But in the sudden concluding paragraph there is a major resolution. The author’s understatement leaves it to the reader’s imagination to understand the events of that eventful journey.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of old Wellington. That had that ring of fictional truth that is convincing. Yes, that was the way it was. I felt the same about relationship of the immigrants with their counterparts back in China – bonds and ties under strain - but maybe that was fascination at glimpses into another culture, another way of perceiving existence.
I felt Wong got the flavour of the period – the anti Chinese sentiment, the suffragettes, Truby King, the approach to the First World War. This authenticity gives the book strength. But I return to the centrality of the clandestine love affair. The strains of such a relationship! The effects of such a relationship! Gentleness finds it hard to survive in a world of hate and bitterness. The world can turn silver. But not always!
When I finished the book I realised there were some flaws. ‘War and Peace’ has more and my favourite note Hardy’s ‘Tess’ has dozens. But I intend to read Wong’s novel again soon and more slowly. It’s a good read.