The novel opens with a death. Sam and Lucy’s father, Ba, dies in the night. Their Ma is long gone and now it is just the two of them. Eleven and twelve years of age. The siblings do not even have the two silver dollars needed to cover their father’s eyes as is custom.
Now both their parents are dead, and they are alone in a world that at best dislikes and barely tolerates their kind. The reader is left in the dark as to how these two siblings have got into this situation and their family’s history.
When the teller at the bank refuses to loan them two silver dollars, Sam produces her father’s gun and fires. Luckily, it is a misfire, but their fate is sealed the moment she pulled the trigger. If they were white, they might, just might, be able to explain what had happened, but being Chinese, not a gold-flakes chance in Hell. They must leave as quickly as possible, and their adventure begins.
The narrative is primarily about Sam and Lucy’s struggle to survive but it is also about so much more. Zhang continually draws the attention of the reader to the railway that is being built. It takes on an almost mythical beastly presence destroying the land and its fauna and flora as is slowly grows, stretches, and lengthens across the land. Not only the train but the encroachment of civilization. With the insatiable lust for gold in their eyes, the miners never stop for even a second to consider what they are doing to the environment. Ripping up trees, exploding mountains, killing and displacing wildlife and natives all in the name of greed. There is almost a contemporary feel of warning here. A warning of the environmental damage we still dish out on our poor planet while mining for what we consider valuable and necessary.
The book is about displacement. The horrible feeling of not belonging, being seen, but not noticed. The feeling of being different to everybody else. Lucy yearns for a home without even knowing what a home is.
Racial abuse and exploitation, another theme that is explored by Zhang, with the Chinese miners being shipped over and treated little better than slaves. Working under the illusion and lies that they will make a better life for themselves.
Zhang explores sexual identity with Sam, dressing and pretending to be a man. This charade is played to deter sexual predators and to simply make things easier in what was a “mans” world. And yet, in contradiction, Lucy survives with no such deception.
The narrative is told in four parts with parts one to three rolling backwards in time. As the narrative rolls backward, the reader learns the history of Lucy and Sam’s parents. Part three is my favourite part, with the shade, ghost, spirit, call it what you will, of the father talking in the first person to Lucy. Seeking forgiveness and explaining how things went wrong, revealing the history of himself and their mother.
With the revealing of their history we find that Ba was teaching the Chinese miners, and in particular their mother, words in English. This is symbolized with each chapter having a one-word title that is relevant to the contents of that chapter. A wonderful touch.
Part four jumps into the future, and for me is the weakest part of the book. It feels a little rushed with Zhang trying to cram in too much information about the sibling’s history and revealing a major plot point that was never explored in the main narrative. However, this is intentional and meant to surprise the reader.
Zhang’s writing is quite beautiful and descriptive, most notably when describing the landscape. The prose is quite exquisite throughout the entire novel and is a highlight. Time for the old cliché, this novel does not feel like a debut at all and thoroughly deserves its place in the Booker longlist. 4.5 Stars.
Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, C Pam Zhang has lived in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home. She's been awarded support from Tin House, Bread Loaf, Aspen Words and elsewhere, and currently lives in San Francisco.
Wonderful interview with Zhang here on Bookpage. Link - https://bookpage.com/interviews/25002-c-pam-zhang-fiction#.X4Ecq2gza00