New Zealand poet Alison Wong has at last delivered her long-awaited novel, AS THE EARTH TURNS SILVER.
I am one of those who have been eager to read Alison Wong's novel, having over the years been deeply impressed by the extracts she published of work-in-progress of a historical novel examining the experience of Chinese settlers in New Zealand.
One of the qualities that had so attracted me was that for me her work had the quality of having been translated from another language. Although she writes in English, there is a freshness and a poise to her use of language that retains the poetry even within a prose framework, a feeling that the story is being sketched visually for you rather than merely being told in words. There seems to me to be a rare exquisite stillness at the heart of her technique, and I wanted to see more.
For me reading this book was like studying and enjoying an ink and wash painting, with its astonishing changes of tone within a single brush stroke. Her novel has a deliberate formal structure, and an understated technique in telling the story, that is more than the sum of its economical parts.
Among other things, it's a political novel. There are issues of race and gender and of class, and of alienation within and between families and cultures. And within oneself.
The mood is at turns aloof and angry, and the narrative holds other emotions besides. This is the kind of novel that can evoke the emotions of the reader too.
The novel is episodic, lyrical, with leaps of time and place and with shifting narrators, and most of all with sudden halts where the reader is made to stop in silence, and to think, to remember, and to muse - about difference, about acceptance, and about love.
Without being a Mills & Boon, the story is very much about love, its unpredictability, its durability. It has a fierce strength, as one understands its central characters to have.
There are in this novel several powerfully credible characters whose exploits and experiences can draw both anger and tears from the reader. This is quite a feat in itself and leads me to hope that Wong will keep growing and keep delivering important literary statements from her skilfully articulated vantage point.
Some of the historical characters and events don't ring so true to me, and seem occasionally to distract in their slight unnaturalness or arbitrary intrusion. But one trusts the competence of the author so much, one even wonders - is this rhetorical discomfort intended as yet another of the brushstrokes in the story? In any case, even if these are but the technical flaws of a first novelist, they do not detract from the story.
Eventually all the strands are drawn together, and you do want to stay there for the duration. It's a compelling read, and the author draws you along, so that the people become more and more real as they approach closer to you, as they emerge from their distant and strange early perspective into focus and into realistic people who breathe and bleed.
AS THE EARTH TURNS SILVER is launched tonight in Wellington. I wish I could have been there to congratulate Alison personally. Maybe her publisher will take her on the road for a publicity tour, and if so I can bet there'll be a great Dunedin turnout for her - she has many friends here.