How Much of These Hills Is Gold

Bidisha, in her review of How Much of These Hills Is Gold for The Guardian, wrote: "The novel is thick with detail, metaphor and oblique allusion – so much so that the story has to fight through the language." I agree, and was surprised it's been longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020. C Pam Zhang builds her story around two girls of Chinese descent who must fend for themselves in the Wild West after losing their parents. The narrative can be divided into three parts: father dies and daughters flee town with his corpse; a jump back to the family's destitute days, of suffering and hope; and life later (following the first part) in the town of Sweetwater, where one sister has settled. It's a new take on the Western novel in a way, but it relies heavily on the ideas and images we already have of that time and place, and the myth, while adding a few fresh elements such as tigers. Two Chinese-American girls in that era is the new angle, I suppose.

I wanted to like this one because the idea intrigued me, but reading it I found myself too often trying to figure out what was going on. And Zhang's prose, although seemingly poetic, didn't pull me in or offer much depth. Worse, I came to the end of the novel and felt I hadn't gotten to know either sister below the surface. How do they feel? What's really making them tick? Who knows? On a positive note, there are parts of the story that don't come across as evasive somehow (intentionally or unintentionally) and which held my interest, particularly the middle of the book, when the family is still together and the narrative also coheres. Looking ahead, I'm curious to see how Zhang will develop her storytelling down the line.