How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang

            I saw this book where I get most of my bookspiration these days: Instagram. The cover is gorgeous and I instantly was intrigued. Over the space of a few weeks I kept seeing it pop up across my social media and I knew that it was something that I needed to get my hands on.

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            The plot centres on Lucy and Sam, twelve and eleven, whose violent father has just passed away. The girls were born into the American gold rush era, to immigrant parents from Asia – implied China. For various reasons they are unable to stay in their small house, so they pack up Ba’s body in and old trunk, steal a horse and make their way across the barren landscape looking for a good place to bury him – properly in the way that their Ma taught them.

            Throughout the rolling prose and lush descriptions of the landscape and the characters we learn a little more about Ba and Ma and what drove them to the situation that they were in.

“And wasn’t that the real reason for traveling, a reason bigger than poorness and desperation and greed and fury—didn’t they know, low in their bones, that as long as they moved and the land unfurled, that as long as they searched, they would forever be searchers and never quite lost?”

CPAMZHANGC.Pam Zhang

            Sam is an interesting character in that she pretends to be a boy, cutting her hair short and putting pebbles in her undergarments to mimic a penis. She is filled with Ba’s angry temperament, his rash decision-making and his need to explore the environment. By contrast Lucy is lost. After losing both parents you get the sense that she is just craving stability.

            This is a harrowing read and not for the faint of heart. Lucy and Sam go through a traumatic ordeal. And while some of the trauma is left unspoken, we still get to witness uncomfortable scenes, the least upsetting of which involves their father’s decomposing body being picked up in pieces and buried piecemeal along the way.

v2 with signature hills web lookinsides

            How Much of These Hills is Gold is a technically breath-taking novel. The ornamental prose is lilting and evocative of the heat, dirt and death of the gold rush era and the Wild West. The unique perspective of this historical time period was also interesting coming from a Chinese immigrant family struggling to survive in an unforgiving landscape. The addition of trans-sexuality issues also broadened this novel’s diversity and echoed to a wider selection of readers.

            But saying all of that, I just did not get on with this novel as a story.

            The language, beautiful as it was, really went off on a tangent at times, making it very difficult to focus on what was actually happening in the story. There were whole chapters which gave an interesting look at events of the past, but did little to further the storyline. It was as though the author was writing a literary study of the characters, rather than a novel that told their story.

“Too often truth ain’t in what’s right, Lucy girl—sometimes it’s in who speaks it. Or writes it.”

            I really wanted to like the characters. Two children alone in the wilderness on a mission/adventure? Those are my kind of characters. But Sam was obnoxious and in all honesty unlikable. The author did very little throughout the novel to improve my opinion of her as a character and I felt like there was very little progression or arc to her story. Lucy was a little more likeable, but even she was odd and at times unpleasant. Again there was little that made her more appealing to the reader – I didn’t really feel sorry for her, despite a shallow feeling of ‘oh what a horrible thing to go through’. I can’t put my finger on what it was; I just did not click with either of them.

            In terms of the plot itself, very little happened. The girls found somewhere to bury their father. Then they parted ways for five years. I wont spoil what happens at the end, but if you’re looking for a gripping page-turner, this isn’t it.

            What this is is a beautifully written, poetic study of two lives that were uniquely shaped by tragedy. A soulful exploration of family and love and what it means to belong.

“Maybe the travel goes quicker on account of Lucy feeling a sorrow kin to love. Because though these dry yellow hills yielded nothing but pain and sweat and misplaced hope—she knows them. A part of her is buried in them, a part of her lost in them, a part of her found and born in them—so many parts belong to this land. An ache in her chest like the tug of a dowsing rod. Across the ocean the people will look like them, but they won’t know the shapes of these hills, or the soughing of grass, or the taste of muddy water—all these things that shape Lucy within as her eyes and nose shape her without. Maybe the travel goes quicker on account of Lucy mourning, already, the loss of this land”

            Unfortunately while I can appreciate the mastery of the language and the skill, this is not the sort of story that grabs me and I was disappointed. Then I was disappointed to have been disappointed. I would recommend it on the basis of the language alone, but not if, like me you ant to get lost in a great story.

            Which leads me on to the question: What do you look for in a novel? A technically flawless and lyrical depiction? An exciting story that hooks you from the outset? Or something different? Get in touch and let me know, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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