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by Alison Wong
Reviewed by Andy Barnes

Although As the Earth Turns Silver is Alison Wong's debut novel, the expectations are already high. In August this year she became just the third recipient of the Janet Frame award for fiction, which is fast becoming one of New Zealand's highest literary honours. When it was released in New Zealand, the book shot to third on the bestseller lists. It is now being brought to a much wider audience with publication outside of her home country.

As the Earth Turns Silver is an across‒the‒divides love story set in Wellington in the early part of the twentieth century. Against a background of rising ethnic tension, Yung, a Chinese immigrant, and Katherine, a white European recently widowed from a violent racist husband, alleviate their loneliness in each other's company. What begins as shy recognition of a kindred spirit blossoms into a torrid romance conducted in secret, hidden from the judgemental glares of contemporary Wellingtonians. More importantly, their love must be kept hidden from their families, especially Katherine's son, who worships the memory and ideals of his dead father. With the First World War looming, issues of nationality, ethnicity and duty are brought sharply into focus for both Yung and Katherine, and the relationship begins to feel increasingly claustrophobic and doom-laden.

The interest in Wong following her receipt of the Janet Frame award has perhaps created expectations that were always going to be hard to meet. As the Earth Turns Silver is an interesting read, but not always a great one. The setting and issues addressed by Wong were largely unknown to me; if her aim was to transport the reader to a different time and place, then the book is a success. Her mixing of historical fact, such as real racist attacks on Chinese Wellingtonians, with her love story gives the whole piece a historical gravitas that I found genuinely interesting. It is this glimpse into their own hidden history that may have got the Kiwis reading in large numbers. However, the narrative itself did very little for me. Unremarkable prose is coupled with a plot that contained few surprises and characters that I just couldn't get interested in. It is an across‒the‒divides romance in the best traditions of Romeo and Juliet. This, of course, isn't a bad thing, but it does mean that it faces some pretty stiff opposition.

Does this mean that As the Earth Turns Silver is only interesting as a Kiwi period piece? Well, not exactly. There is enough here for me to keep one eye out for Wong's future output. With a little more bravery in her writing she may well emerge as a real literary talent. As first novels go, it is unlikely to set the world alight, but aficionados of tragic romance will find much to interest them in the unique setting and historical background of this love story.