A good cover does attracts, but it is not a be all or end all for me. I do base my quick decision on the blurb. If I have the time, I’ll do secondary research on google and hear what people say about the book, before I borrow or buy it.
How do you make your decision when you are at the library or browsing through the book store display?
I digress, back to the book!
It is New Zealand, at the first decade of the twentieth century, just before the WWI. Katherine McKechnie is struggling to raise two children Robbie and Edie (her daughter) following the death of her abusive husband, Donald. A chance encounter with a Chinese shopkeeper, Wong Chun-Yung, blossoms into friendship and, eventually, love.
Racial tension and prejudice mean the two must keep their relationship clandestine. The poignant description of the moonlight against the earth and the draw of these two very different people was the best part of the book, I thought. Soon Katherine’s son, Robbie, learns the truth and on the eve of World War I as young men everywhere are swept up on a tide of macho patriotism, takes his family’s honour into his own hands – with devastating consequences.
Perhaps Alison’s forte is poetry that this book is written in short chapters that made very easy reading. This causes some problem with me as these short chapters made the book feel very fragmented. I am not sure if the chapters about Yung’s brother and his wives or concubine add any weight in this whole matter, in fact it felt very peripheral to the central characters.
Then the spurts of history lessons about Chinese revolution and World War II (also the mention of the murder a Chinese man which took place at the Haning street of Wellington which the story is loosely based upon), women suffrage etc emerge. All these little twists on historical events were made to convey some importance to the story which happened at the turn of the 19th century, yet it feels pretentious as it attempts to act out a repertoire of Atonement by Ian McEwan, only with less emotional impact than a great historical or war saga could do.
There isn’t much of a plot in this book but Wong deftly handles the tones between two very different narratives of the Chinese and the Westerners. She uses the colloquial English voice of the Chinese to narrate the past of the grocer’s family and polished English for natives of Wellington, which I thought is a skill of an accomplished writer. The playfulness of languages and the subtleness of the unsaid is also good.
Don’t expect this book to end well, but a book ending bad has not deter me from loving it in the past. Reflecting on my two polarised views, I couldn’t decide whether I like the book or not. It is a compelling read but I wouldn’t call it remarkable. The book cover however, I admit is remarkably captivating with regards to the photography. Misty and grey, with the right colour balance.
Have you read this? Do you know of any other New Zealand authors (besides Lloyd Jones of Mister Pip) that you would recommend?
Winner of Janet Frame Fiction Award 2009.
Winner of New Zealand Post Book Awards: Fiction 2010.
Shortlisted for PANZ Book Design Awards: Best Cover 2010.
Paperback. Publisher: Picador 2010 ; Length: 272 pages; Setting: 1905 – 1922 Wellington, New Zealand. Source: Library copy. Finished reading on: 16 April 2011.
About the Writer:
Wong has received various awards for her fiction and poetry including the 2002 Robert Burns Fellowship at the University of Otago, a Readers Digest – New Zealand Society of Authors Fellowship at the Stout Research Centre and a NZ Founders Society Research Award. She has been a finalist in several poetry competitions and received grants from Creative NZ and the Willi Fels Memorial Trust.
In 2003 she has been a guest writer at the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and the Wordstruck! Festival in Dunedin, as well as a speaker for the Stout Research Centre Chinese New Zealand Seminar Series. In 2001 together with Linzy Forbes (her husband), she received a Porirua City Council Civic Honour Award for co-founding and running Poetry Cafe.
Her first poetry collection, Cup, was released in February 2006 by Steele Roberts. It was shortlisted for a poetry prize in the Montana Book awards.
Her first novel As the Earth Turns Silver was published in late June 2009 by Penguin NZ and has also been listed in the NZ Post Book Awards and is on the shortlist for the Australian PM’s Book Awards.