This lyrical novel is set in Wellington, New Zealand just over a hundred years ago. In this country of then recent immigrants, there was a racial hierarchy, with those of British origin considering themselves superior to others, and an active Anti-Chinese League.
Katherine McKechnie's husband Donald has drowned in a drunken accident. Wong has described him in just enough detail to understand why, for Katherine, widowhood is liberation rather than tragedy. A drunk, he was nasty to her and sometimes violent, and he cheated on her, giving her an infection which has made her infertile after two children and a miscarriage. He was also a racist, with a friend, Lionel Terry, who campaigns vociferously against allowing Chinese immigrants into the country, and is subsequently convicted of murdering a man - his defence is that the law against murder doesn't apply to killing someone of another race. Katherine's son Robbie idolises his dad though, and has taken on his father's views and those of his friend.
Chung Yung and his older brother Shun run a greengrocer's shop where Katherine buys her fruit and vegetables, finding them cheaper and fresher. Gradually she becomes good friends with Yung, and eventually the friendship deepens into something more. However, there are many reasons why their relationship must remain hidden. Yung has a wife back in China. Also, the racial divide means that the relationship would scandalise and outrage families and neighbours in both communities.
I was moved by the story of the relationship between Katherine and Yung, of the secret and very slowly kindled romance. I enjoyed the fact that it was based on friendship first.
However, I found the social history in the novel even more fascinating. As well as portraits of the day to day lives of a white "British" family and those of the Chinese brothers, Wong includes the voices of wives back home in China and a Chinese woman who lives with Shun in Wellington (she is referred to as a concubine in the novel, but I wondered whether this word would have been used for a woman in Mei-lin's position in reality).
Katherine goes to work for an active campaigner for women's rights, offering Wong an opportunity to include lots of material on the women's issues of the day. Her daughter Edie is inspired to pursue education and a career herself. I really liked reading about all this although perhaps Wong includes a bit too much detail to use her interesting historical material rather than maintaining the flow of the novel.
Most of the story, and all of Katherine's sections, are third person narrative, but Wong also includes sections in the voices of the wives at home in China, and in Yung's voice - I wasn't sure that these quite fitted or of the purpose they served.
Overall though, I found this a compelling and thought-provoking read with an impressive depiction of the values and conflicts of another time and place. Alison Wong is a published poet and her first novel is also beautifully written.
This is an adapted version of a review that first appeared at www.thebookbag.co.uk
Summary: A beautifully written novel set in New Zealand in the 1900s, featuring a clandestine love affair between a white woman and a Chinese man, racism, feminism and much more.
Format: Paperback 272 pages
Publisher: Picador September 2010
ISBN: 978 0 330 46515 1
RRP: £7.99, Amazon price September 2011 £7.19; Kindle £6.39