C Pam Zhang’s striking confident debut places us in the nineteenth century American West in the dying days of the Gold Rush. Prospecting turns to tragedy for one family of Chinese heritage. The novel opens grimly with the father’s corpse and two young siblings Lucy and Sam taking to desperate measures to obtain two silver dollars to close their father’s eyes.
Uprooting themselves once again the children are forced to grow up during their search for a new settlement with the prospect of gold as their salvation. They bring with them their father’s dead body looking for a place to bury him. One section switches from third person narration to allowing the dead father to tell his story which does answer the questions the readers will have about the characters and their predicament.
Main character Lucy is hard to get a grip on. I wasn’t always sure of her motives. I was hoping for something from her viewpoint but this never happened. Her motivation seems to be based on the notion “family is family”. Much easier to read is Sam, thirsting for adventure with the same ideas as their father that gold would provide solutions.
Where I liked this novel most of all is when it slipped into backstory, the father’s narration and the family’s life before the events at the start of the novel where their pregnant mother encourages Lucy to get an education from a man besotted by the family’s exoticness. “Beauty is a weapon” Ma informs her daughter but that’s not always easy to use living hand to mouth in the open air of the American West.
As much as I admired the writing I wasn’t always sure here this novel was heading and once again I find present tense narrative distracting. Lucy’s “education” is completed in a town called Sweetwater where she settles at one point in a section with a distinct change of tone. Sometimes the writing is feverish which gives the work a haunted, nightmarish quality which puts demands on the reader whilst at other times it reminded me both of Sebastian Barry’s recent novels (perhaps brought more clearly into focus as I have so recently read “A Thousand Moons”(2020) and I did find Zhang’s novel stronger) and of the New Zealand set “The Luminaries” (2013) by Eleanor Catton in more ways than its prospecting for gold themes. That book became a Man Booker Prize-winner so I think Zhang is on very strong ground here to turn heads with this literary debut.
How Much Of These Hills is Gold is published today (April 9th 2020) by Virago in the UK. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.