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29Mar

How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang review – an impressive debut

The western novel is seen through fresh eyes in this tale of two orphans struggling to survive

Sure to be the boldest debut of the year, How Much of These Hills Is Gold by American writer C Pam Zhang grapples with the legend of the wild west and mines brilliant new gems from a well-worn setting. Its protagonists are neither cocky white cowboys nor Native Americans but two destitute children of Chinese descent, struggling to survive after the deaths of their impoverished parents. The novel begins as a quest as they try to find the means to bury their father, but extends into an excavation of their family history as well as an account of their development as growing adolescents.

The story is heavy with layers of trauma, starting with the grim humour of the children, Lucy and Sam, dragging around their own father’s rotting corpse. It is a stirring setting in which nothing is ever truly safe or comfortable, not even the plain air, which is so hot it “shivers, as if trying to lift off”. Alongside Sam and Lucy’s family story are the stories of the genocide and persecution of Native Americans, the colonisation of the west and the compulsive exploitation of the land by desperate settlers and greedy opportunists. It is a world so physically and morally rough that the young protagonists fetishise tiny details that represent beauty and purity, such as when Lucy notices a girl whose “embroidered white dress… puffs from her tiny waist”.

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