As the Earth Turns Silver – a short exert of Wellington’s history (review)

As the Earth Turns SilverAs the Earth Turns Silver by Alison Wong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was an enjoyable read but failed to move me particularly. Considering the themes of the story – oppression and racism being the main two – the story could have caused some deep emotional stirrings but this didn’t happen for me.

Set at the turn of the last century, in Wellington, NZ, in the lead up to World War One, there are several key themes at play. And interestingly the story is not narrated from one perspective – the narrative is 3rd person the entire time, and told from the perspective of several different characters. However the main characters are Katherine McKechnie, a New Zealander of British descent, and her family – her husband, and daughter and son, and Yung a Chinese man who moved to New Zealand, and his family – his brother, his wife and his sister-in-law, as well as family who are left back in China. Several key voices exist within the narrative – Katherine, and Yung, but also, Yung’s deserted wife, back in China, Yung’s sister in law, and also at some points, both of Katherine’s children. All these differing narratives give a deeper insight of the period.

To a certain extent I did feel a sympathy towards Katherine McKechnie (as a woman of the 21st Century, it’s hard not to!) for she is a victim of the oppression of women of the era, and worse still her husband treats her with anything but respect. He also ignores their daughter and pours all his attention onto his son, grooming his opinions into something pretty vile. Mr McKechnie works for a very extremist newspaper of the era and he passes his strong racist and sexist views on to his son. He is painted as the villain of the story and reader feels the relief of his wife when he dies an accidental death early in the novel. He also encourages racism in his son, befriending a man who ultimately murders a Chinaman because he firmly believes it was his right to ‘dispose’ of the unwanted foreigners.Such a perspective, indeed such an occurrence… and such support for both is shocking, whilst being entirely accurate in regards to the era. In fact, the murder really did take place. However, somehow, whilst I appreciated the vileness and corruption shown in the widespread attitude of white European descent New Zealanders of the era towards Asians, or more specifically Chinese people, I also felt that I could have felt more . By this I mean that something so horrific (need we discuss that similar kinds of attitudes lead to such extreme acts as the Holocaust) it was as though we were left to struggle to believe that this happened. I wanted Wong (the Author) to convey more passion in her storytelling, to give it more conviction and therefore to stir moreemotion in me as a reader.Back to the plot – the death of Mr McKechnie means that Katherine is now left with no income and yet, after an initial period of poverty she finds a feminist who needs an assistant. This gives her daughter opportunities to be educated and, in the long-term to find a career for herself.

During the McKechnie’s poorer times, after the death of Mr McKechnie and prior to Katherine getting a job the family can barely afford nice fruit and vegetables and in frequenting the shop that Yung runs Katherine finds that he always sneaked extra non-bruised fruit into her shopping, with no charge. It becomes apparent that both are feeling something toward one another and eventually ‘love’ blossoms despite that it such a relationship was totally unacceptable in these.

And so the story develops from there – I’m not going to put in too many more spoilers, plus, to be perfectly honest, I don’t have a great deal more to say about it on the whole. I did feel that I learnt something I didn’t know of the history of New Zealand and that it is shocking to think that only one hundred years ago, such an attitude towards Asian dwellers was completely commonplace. Nevertheless, I think from this review you can see that, for me, I need a bit more emotional pull from a book. I believe this is the author’s first novel and I will be keen to read follow-ups to see how her style develops.

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