Ying awakens to the sound of pickaxes chipping away at rock. She holds her eyes shut, trying to hold on to the dream she was having. However, it slips her grasp, just like the brother she was dreaming about. She wonders where her brother is.
The year is 1877, the gold rush era, and Ying opens the flap of the tent to the shanty town that has sprung up beside the Palmer River in Queensland. A shanty town, one of many that house those who come from all over the globe to strike it rich.
Ying and her brother, Lai Yui, are two of three protagonists that the narrative centres around.
The third is Meriem, a “fallen lady”, shunned from society, who works as a maid for a prostitute named Sophia.
Ying and her brother have come to Australia, to find gold, not for personal wealth, but to try to make enough money to buy their younger siblings back, siblings who have been sold into slavery over their father’s debts.
The narrative is told from the perspectives of these three characters, with the changes happening between chapters. All characters are interesting to read, and all are struggling in some way, all struggling with personal demons.
For obvious reasons, Ying must hide her gender and pretend to be a boy. The rough male dominated goldfields a dangerous place for a young girl. She pines for her siblings and home.
Lai Yui, lives with crippling guilt. Guilt over his siblings, and guilt over his dead fiancée, who talks to him throughout the novel, giving advice, but mostly criticizing and admonishing. He feels it is his fault for his family’s predicament.
Riwoe paints us the picture of the hardships of this life, with some beautifully descriptive writing. Harsh environments, lack of food, racism and ill treatment towards the Chinese and non-white workers, something as simple as the difficulty of communication can result in dire ramifications.
The aboriginals are depicted as “darkies”. Savages, little more than animals, which is how they would have been perceived by the protagonists and the white people in this era. Again, we are reminded of the atrocities that took place in our past.
Ying and Lai Yui, eventually get separated, with Lai Yui having to move to a sheep station for work, while Ying stays at the town and works in the local shop. It is at this stage that narratives of Ying and Miriem will join and the two will become fast friends. Craving each other’s company, the desire becoming stronger with each passing day.
The novel starts slowly but all three narratives slowly ratchet up in intensity, leading to exciting climaxes, and a wonderfully satisfying ending.
Beautifully written and an engrossing story that keeps you enthralled to the last page. 4 stars.
Mirandi Riwoe is the author of the novella The Fish Girl, which won Seizure's Viva la Novella V and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Queensland Literary Award's UQ Fiction Prize. Her work has appeared in Best Australian Stories, Meanjin, Review of Australian Fiction, Griffith Review and Best Summer Stories.
There is a link here to booktopia in which Riwoe answers ten questions - https://www.booktopia.com.au/blog/2020/04/09/mirandi-riwoe-answers-our-ten-terrifying-questions/