Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 9, 2011

As the Earth Turns Silver (2009), by Alison Wong

As the Earth Turns SilverThis debut novel by Alison Wong was the July choice for the ANZ LitLovers reading group.  Wong is an established poet and won the Janet Frame Fiction Award in 2009 for the novel.  It’s the story of the widowed Katherine McKechnie and her love affair with a Chinese greengrocer, a relationship which has to remain secret because of the overt racism that characterised Wellington society at that time.

It’s not a plot-driven love story.  The blurb on the book cover reveals most of the plot anyway so the reader knows that the relationship is doomed from the start, and so there is a predictability about how that happens which makes it a bit of an anti-climax.  This is not Wong’s fault; it’s the publisher’s and the spoiler is replicated on all the online book descriptions I’ve come across. (What possessed them to do this??)

That said, the interest lies more in the evocation of NZ society at the turn of the 20th century and the quiet passion that lies at the heart of the story.  From this perspective, it’s a lovely book, a meditation on love and loss. Katherine McKechnie is a strong and very appealing character: initially muzzled by the dominance of her husband, a braggart and a drunk, she is liberated by his death and by the emergence of the women’s movement.  Despite the cultural and language barriers, she learns to love her Chinese storekeeper but she also learns the enduring power of grief as so many women did in that period.

The long list of acknowledgements at the back of the book shows the meticulous research which goes towards making the story and the setting credible.  The book is structured into four parts with multiple short chapters that allow for development of the back story for the two Chinese brothers and their families in China.  Here the theme of women’s rights juxtaposes the gulf between what was possible for women in New Zealand (the first country in the world to introduce female suffrage) and the tightly circumscribed lives of their Chinese sisters, where girl babies were routinely killed, and where concubinage encouraged festering jealousy and vindictive cruelties.

Nicole Barr at The Guardian wasn’t much impressed but Carole Beu at the NZTV Book Show explains why was a strong contender for the New Zealand Post Book Awards.  The Paradoxical Cat (who also has a lovely way with words) thought there was a ‘rare exquisite stillness at the heart of her technique’  while Beattie’s Book Blog found it ‘an utterly beautiful, totally compelling love story’Mary McCallum at O Audacious Book found herself utterly absorbed while reading it but afterward felt as if the author ‘had largely avoided the tricky stuff: the developing tensions and misunderstandings of a relationship’ such as this.

I’m not sure about that.   It seems to me that Wong did address these misunderstandings with allusions to silences between the couple when language fails and with their internal dismay about how the relationship is perceived by people they had thought might be sympathetic.  It’s not necessary to tell everything and I enjoyed using my imagination to ‘fill the gaps’.

Highly recommended.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Alison Wong
Title: As the Earth Turns Silver
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan) 2009 (first published by Penguin NZ)
ISBN: 9780330465151
Source: Personal copy

Fishpond: As the Earth Turns Silver


  1. I really must read some more NZ literature. If I was going to recommend one for my reading group here – we’ve done a small number over the years and when I say small I mean small (as in Keri Hulme, Janet Frame and maybe a couple of others) – what book would you suggest?


    • I think I’d suggest something by Lloyd Jones. I enjoyed Mr Pip (the one that was nominated for the Booker) and Hand Me Down World was terrific. ANZLL had a really good discussion about The Captive Wife by Fiona KIdman too.


  2. Your point about blurbs is totally true. I have no idea why on earth they give so much away in some of them, its ridiculous. Why would you want to buy a book if you almost know the ending before its begun?

    I have a copy of this so think it will soon be time to dig it out and give it a whirl. I loved the link to the wonderful NZBookTV youtube page, though it has also just distracted me for ages watching them discussing all the different books.


    • Ah, in the 21st century we readers are being so often seduced into reading about the book instead of reading the book! I do it myself, and then I wonder why I’m not reading as much as I used to. But then, I’m reading better, thanks to the riches on the web. I’m nearly always enjoying what I read because the constant conversation from other readers whose opinions I trust helps me to find books I like. Their recommendations cut through the dross of publicity and hype so I don’t often find myself disappointed by a book.
      BTW the ANZLL book group is currently having a great discussion about this book, it’s a good one for groups to enjoy…


  3. Original publisher is Penguin New Zealand :)


    • Thanks, Leesy. I always use the publishing details of the edition I’ve read but I’ve added that above. Did you like the book too?


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