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How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

Isn’t it such a shame when a book starts off wonderfully: interesting, dynamic, original, just to continue and end in a completely different tone. By the end How Much of These Hills Is Gold lost all of its novelty and freshness. It turned into unskillfully written chapters filled with incredibility and tackiness. The main thread somehow, sadly, got lost along the way.

The whole setting and motifs are magical, mythical and symbolical: the dead father in the suitcase, the tiger, the buffalos, the journey across the oceans, the gold itself, the mysterious drawn symbols, the prospectors, ghosts.

The symbolism of the title was interesting: not only were the hills filled with gold, but even more so the hills were filled with gold/yellow grass and that was the main problem of all of the characters – a dry, barren land, not a promised land filled with riches. A land on which it is very hard to survive on and from. A hard life, a life harder than hard.

The main question is: what is identity? How do we understand and identify ourselves? In relation to what? The place of our birth, the place we live in, what we look like? How can we establish identity when all the important facts were hidden from us? If we don’t know of the fact of race, the fact of a country we come from, does it make them disappear? Of course not. Ignorance or not knowing always makes things more difficult.

We are constantly defined and rooted by our ancestry, our origins, regardless if we know of them or not. People are always bound to places, other people, their own ancestors. We never exist as lone individuals, we exist in-relation-to because that is human. Not knowing our past makes us not know ourselves completely.

“There is, she is coming to see, a place that exists between the world Ba pursued and the world Ma wanted. His a lost world, doomed to make the present and future dim in comparison. Hers so narrow it could accommodate only one. A place Lucy and Sam might arrive at together. Almost a new kind of land.”

I liked the very ancient Greek tragic error that was the consequence of the crime that mother and father have committed in the past, it is (partly) the reason for their demise. The other part of their “tragic error” is that they are foreigners, unlike others around them. Nothing can come easy to them, not even hard life on barren land.

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

One of the main problems this novel deals with is inequality, the difference between those who work and those who gain from the work of others, the fact that gold can never be the property of those who were not born there. A country where nothing can be yours, where you can only be a slave. A slave whose only perspective is to die in poverty and pain.

Finding gold not only means nothing for the “other” people, but also means a crime, but at the same time it means hard work for those same people as well. Not only are Lucy and Sam people without a country, identity, race they are aware of, a language that is their own, they are not allowed to have neither property nor gain.

“Gold can’t buy everything. This will never be our land.”

As if facts hidden from them weren’t enough for their hardship, there is the problem of gender, another thing we are forced to be and unable to show our true selves freely. The secret of Sam’s gender identity, another lie he is forced to keep to stay alive. I found the gentleness and acceptance, the love between siblings to be the most touching and genuine part of the novel.

And those are the highlights of the novel: race, gender, identity in whole. Zhang deals with them masterfully, making us understand the full depth of the characters’ feelings, doubts and troubles.

I loved the untranslated parts of the text that were incomprehensible for the reader (at least to me) the same as they were inconprehensible for Lucy and Sam. We can all only infer the meaning and that gives us a better understanding of their life. Only inferring and not understanding is hard and constant work without certain outcomes.

The novel consists of four parts, the 1st part begins after Ba’s death with the escape of the girls. The 2nd part describes the time period before Ma’s death. The 3rd part (told in the 1st person, as opposed to all the other parts that were told in the 3rd person) is narrated by the dead father, telling Lucy the story of how he and their mother met and what they were guilty for. The 4th part starts five years after the 1st part. These switching timelines make the novel dynamic and more pensive, but they are also confusing and give the whole novel a false-poetic feel, a feel that you have to search for connections and meaning (which doesn’t generate meaning that isn’t there).

The decline of the novel starts with the father’s perspective and continues with the siblings parting and Lucy’s (unreasonable) sacrifice. I see no explanation or need for the ghostly perspective because the whole novel switches from the magical feel to a rational one. Everything can be explained only when there is knowledge. The ghost-narrator really doesn’t fit.

Lucy’s sacrifice, the ending, the love/hate between the parents, the girls’ love for their mother, everything is overly sentimental, just too much and completely unbelievable and unlikely.

By the end of the novel I felt cheated and sad because the first two parts were quite promising. Most of all, I wished that there was more work, specially more editorial work, put into the novel, then it would have been fantastic. It leaves me with a feeling that the great beginning was written carefully and the rest was just rushed and botched. I think this could be the case when people say: “it’s good for the author’s first novel.” But it shouldn’t be that way, it is a shame to waste an inspired piece of work in inexperienced writing that seemed, at times, even amateurish.

And, as always with me, the biggest fault of the novel is that it slowly drifts from true issues, true problems filled with meaning into sentimentality. It attempts to be poetic, but it ends up with an artificial, fake feel to it all.

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