Alison Wong, Picador, £10.99
New Zealand writer Alison Wong's first novel is a subtly emotive story that chronicles the progression of a clandestine love affair set amid the racial tensions of an early 20th century New Zealand city. Katherine, a recently widowed mother of two, is struggling to make ends meet when she meets and falls in love with Yung, a Chinese man who runs a greengrocer's shop in Wellington's rapidly growing Chinese community. Their affair is slow to evolve but once the fire is kindled the reader is drawn irreversibly into their heady romance.
Wong's melodic writing skilfully weaves her story of love, loss and prejudice in and out of the varied lives of her cast of characters, introducing the reader along the way to a psychotic racist, a Chinese mistress, an upper class feminist and a patriotic young soldier.
Dense and complex issues such as feminism materialise in the guise of certain personalities but Wong lingers only long enough to paint a few brushstrokes of characterisation before she has restlessly moved on again to another strand of the story, which often left me feeling dissatisfied.
She does explore at length the racial tension between the Western and Chinese communities in New Zealand, and the ignorance and brutality it engendered. There is one particularly striking scene where the heroine's young son, Robbie, is dared by a friend to run down Haining Street, notorious for its opium dens.
As he sprints past the houses, the unfamiliar smells and sights pass by him in a blur, sickening him in their unfamiliarity. Like his deceased right wing hack father, Robbie cultivates a seething hatred of what he perceives to be alien, and this hatred resurfaces later in the most tragic of circumstances.
Prior to this novel, Wong was a poet and certainly the writing is beautiful, but it is also often insubstantial. Her real skill is in capturing little moments of activity and fleeting emotion. However, the importance of such colossal events as the First World War and the formation of the Republic of China is diluted, their effects only felt occasionally when they impinge directly on the everyday lives of her characters.
To this extent, certain parts of the story seem rushed. The reader is supposed to empathise with the protagonists, yet often cannot because of paper-thin characterisation and a shady context. I would recommend this novel as a touching story of forbidden love, but perhaps not as a work of great social or political depth.