Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe – the story of our own Chinese people in the Australian Gold Rush – is kicking goals and winning awards all over the place at the moment and if you enjoyed that book, then you will also love the American debut novel How Much of These Hills is Gold (Virago 2020) by C Pam Zhang. It’s the north American equivalent and some of the similarities are astonishing: although set in different continents, both books feature Chinese siblings keen to make their fortune amidst the harsh and indifferent foreign land in which they find themselves. Both novels take us deep into the relationship between the siblings, and the complicated family circumstances they must endure. And both will have you absolutely gripped with tension from beginning to end.
The main characters in How Much of These Hills is Gold also reminded me of the child protagonists of Trent Dalton’s novels, particularly Molly Hook in All Our Shimmering Skies – a child weighed down by adult choices and responsibilities, a feisty and courageous figure determined to make the best of a bad situation.
We meet Lucy and Sam just after their father Ba has died in the night. Their mother has already gone. Aged only 12 and 11, they are suddenly very much alone, and on the run as they try to find a suitable and appropriate place to bury their father’s body. Fraught by superstition and their father’s abusive and hateful behaviour, the two beg, borrow and steal to try and stay alive and stay together.
This is a perspective of the Gold Rush not often visited. Lucy and Sam are outsiders, bound by their family memories, their promises to each other, their very different ambitions and personalities. Gradually they drift apart, as each tries to build a new life.
The plot is tense, unforgettable and complex. The characters are memorable and engaging. The landscape is harsh, bitter and unforgiving. The themes are universal and thought-provoking. This almost-myth about two feral children and their strange journey has a touch of magic realism alongside some very visceral realities. The story is a dark tale of a broken family and a society that couldn’t care less. It is about longing and belonging, about betrayal and forgiveness, about determination and courage.