Reviews / November 2009 (Issue 9)

Love across Two Worlds: Review of Alison Wong's As the Earth Turns Silver

by Viona Au Yeung


Alison Wong, As the Earth Turns Silver, Picador, 2009. 270 pgs.

At the heart of Alison Wong's novel is a love story set in Wellington, New Zealand. Katherine, the white widow of a local man of standing and the mother of two children, gradually falls in love with Yung, an immigrant from China.

In the early days of their romance, the two search for the best way to express their affections. Aware of his own inadequate English language skills, Yung patiently explains every stroke of the characters which make up his Chinese name: "Courage" and "Faith." This act of communication not only bridges the gaps between two languages, but also the void in Katherine's heart; courage and faith it turns out, is just what Katherine needs.

While the author is interested in the linguistic effort involved in breaking down cultural barriers, she also explores the core of the problem—the fear of speaking one's heart, a more difficult problem to surmount. While Yung is brought up in a culture in which love is felt but not explicitly stated, leading to his failure to confess his love in words, Katherine's desire to "cry out" her vows is mysteriously suppressed. One realizes from Alison Wong's depiction of the two characters' intimate exchanges that there is always more to think about on the issue of communication than merely linguistic eloquence.

In the novel, one can easily find words translated literally from the Chinese language. Wong deliberately preserves the awkwardness of expressions transposed into another language, thus allowing readers to understand how uniquely each culture approaches an individual notion. One example of this is "eats vinegar" being the Chinese equivalent of being jealous.

By telling the story from the perspectives of various characters, the author juxtaposes the public and private understanding of Chinese people. On one hand, Katherine speaks of the common romantic mystification of the Chinese race by using the term "celestials"; on the other, her son Robert learns from the papers and his peers about the public image of Haining Street where Yung lives as a slum for gamblers and opium-eaters. Despite this, we see that the lovers Yung and Katherine have become innocent toddlers once again—they carefully attend to each other's speech like toddlers learning to walk. They stumble at times, yet endure the awkwardness and embarrassment, then stand up and try again. Katherine, who had been longing for freedom ever since being trapped into the domestic duties or wife and mother, eventually finds what she needs in the gradual and down-to-earth strokes of Chinese characters.

Yung, on the other hand, has to endure the dissatisfaction which grows out of cultural differences. There is a moment when he remembers how his late wife talked about the poetry of Li Po, the famous Tang Dynasty poet. While Yung does not mind Katherine's lack of mastery of his own native tongue, he does dream of sharing with his lover some of the delicate emotions and ideas stored in the Chinese language. Sadly, no matter how hard Katherine tries to recall the melody of Butterfly Lovers, which Yung played in their earlier days on his Chinese violin, the music does not come to life again, but is instead substituted by her humming of Auld Lang Syne.

Wong's novel raises questions of identity, the most powerful of which is the inseparable relationship between the life and the body which defines one's identity. Readers will notice a subtle change in Katherine's observation of Yung as their friendship gradually transforms into a romantic relationship. At the beginning of their romance, she tries to dilute his Chineseness: "And yet when she was with him she forgot who he was. After all, he had a strong, almost European nose. He was tall. He didn't really look Chinese." Later, we see that although Katherine's view of her lover continues to be influenced by her prejudices, we also see that it is tempered by a more philosophical understanding of the nature of identity: "If only she could have changed his skin. But then who would he have been?" The characters are all too conscious that they have to live in their given bodies, vessels which determine their appearance, feelings and in some cases, destinies.

Yet, the writer also inspires her readers through Yung's unyielding attitude towards life: "People took it in their hands, they held it and would not let go. Some people did this and did not know. Some people knew what they were doing." For Alison Wong, those who are daring enough to venture out in the dark will be rewarded by the beautiful scene of the earth turned silver.

Editors' note: Read Alison Wong's poem "There's Always Things to Come Back to the Kitchen for" here.

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