What makes a home a home? The bones, the grass, the sky bleached white as its edges from heat – familiar and yet not, as if, flipping through an old book read once upon a time, they find the pages disordered, the colours melted down by sun and years, the story misremembered.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold is a powerful work of historical fiction woven with Asian folklore. With lyrical prose and evocative imagery, I can call that this book will be everywhere in a few months; topping the prize lists and starring in scores of ‘books of the year’ roundups.
Set against the twilight of the American gold rush, Zhang opens the novel with the death of Ba, the father of two Chinese-American siblings who have already lost their mother. Now alone, the siblings are on the run in an unforgiving landscape, trying not just to survive but to find a home.
What follows is a stunning, original novel whose poetic sentences left me wanting more. Through hypnotising imagery of the American Midwest, C Pam Zhang brings to life all the beauty yet isolation of the lands that the siblings encounter. However, Lucy and Sam don’t only traverse the Midwest but also their parents’ history. We see the past, present, and future of this family as the siblings, Lucy, in particular, grapple with what it means to be a daughter, a sister, a survivor.
This novel does a lot. It tackles issues that transcend your typical western genre: belonging, yearning, racism, and exploitation. But more than anything it’s a story about identity. While Lucy – the older of the two – was never close with her father, Sam identifies as a male due to the toxic upbringing of their father who so desperately wanted a son. Ultimately, Sam may well be a girl in terms of gender, but as far as she is concerned, she identifies as a boy, and she wants a different future than the one Lucy desires. This may be a work of historical fiction, but it brings diversity to the forefront and fresh perspectives into an age-old genre.
How Much of These Hills Is Gold brings light to an era that history tends to gloss over. It may have taken me some time to catch the rhythm of its unique prose, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.
Thank you Virago and Tandem Collective for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review.
For more reading inspiration, read my review of ‘The Vanishing Half’ by Brit Bennett
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