Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 3, 2014

The Yellow Papers, by Dominique Wilson

The Yellow PapersDominique Wilson is an Australian author of French-Algerian origin, and her debut novel resonates with her perception of Australia’s multicultural heritage ‘from the other side’.  It’s the story of Chen Mu, a fugitive from justice who finds refuge in Australia at the turn of the 20th century.  While Wilson’s character suffers his share of the prevailing anti-Chinese hostility, he manages a kind of redemption in the Outback, and becomes an inspiration for an end to post-WW2 anti-Asian racism.

It’s a complex journey for this character.  Aged only seven, Chen Mu leaves China in 1872 when authorities select this bright young boy to study in the US.  The idea was that, having suffered an inglorious defeat in the Opium Wars, China sought to retrieve its sovereignty by modernising its weaponry with input from beyond its own borders.  All goes to plan for Chen Mu until an impulsive act makes him flee and he finally ends up working on a property outside a mining town called Umberumberka, the original name of Silverton near Broken Hill, where a reservoir bears this name.  (See also a heritage site describing the Mutawintji National Park).

Lotus brush rest. Source: Etsy.com

Lotus brush rest.
Source: Etsy.com

Chen Mu settles on a pastoral property run by Matthew Dawson, a rich pastoralist, and ends up mentoring Dawson’s son, Edward, who goes on to become the central character in the latter part of the novel.  Wilson successfully links some otherwise improbable circumstances with Chen Mu’s Confucian wisdom and Edward’s interest in Chinese antiquities, an interest which derives from a calligraphy brush rest that is the sole tangible remainder of Chen Mu’s Chinese heritage.

What separates The Yellow Papers from the usual historical saga is partly the way Wilson redefines ‘family’ to include Chen Mu, and partly the way she respects the reader’s intelligence and leaves some gaps in the 90-year chronology that can be inferred without needing to labour the point.  Even so, at 348 pages, it’s quite a long novel, and some of it is quite confronting.

Edward is of an age to witness four wars, but it’s his last one, the Korean War, which finds him behind the lines and eventually a POW.   Unsurprisingly, his dreadful experiences make him anti-Asian, which compromises his long-standing affection for Chen Mu and his feelings for Ming Li, the love of his life who he’d met in China during WW2, just in time to be separated as Mao Tse Tung’s Communists closed China to the world.  Wilson is particularly good at rendering Edward’s confusion and guilt about reconciling his conflicting memories.

I was impressed by the uncompromising ending.  The novel gathers tension towards the end, and the characters find themselves locked in a destructive pattern of relationships forged by ideology rather than human behaviour.  I can’t say more without spoilers, but this is a novel that saves its biggest shock till the end.

You can hear Dominique Wilson chatting about her book on this podcast on Radio Adelaide.

Author: Dominique Wilson
Title: The Yellow Papers
Publisher: Transit Lounge 2014
ISBN: 9781921924613
Source: Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge

Availability

Transit Lounge: The Yellow Papers
Fishpond: The Yellow Papers


Responses

  1. This sounds very interesting. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    • I think you’d like it a lot, Marg:)

  2. […] is the second novel of Dominique Wilson, who wrote The Yellow Papers, a book I really liked. (See my review). This book is even better, signalling to me that Dominique Wilson is an author to […]


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