So, I decided just under three weeks about, when The Booker Prize Long list came out that I was going to read or listen to all thirteen novels before the short list came out. The first one I read was C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold.
Set in the nineteenth century, as the American west is swarmed by gold prospectors, coal mines, and railroads to connect it all, this book tells the story about a pair of siblings who are orphaned at eleven and twelve years old, and have to make their own way in an unwelcoming landscape.
The novel is atmospheric and foreboding. Personal treat, natural disaster, and a mind boggling array of other dangers populate its pages, leaving the reader on edge almost for its entirety. This book is as haunted by the ghosts of Lucy’s and Sam’s parents, as it is by all the animals, landscapes, and people destroyed in westward expansion. It is also arresting in the ways it reveals secrets. Just wait until you find out what Sam packs to take with them in their mother’s trunk, when they have to flee the mining town where their father dies.
While it begins in a way that’s evocative of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, it eventually leaves this predecessor aside, striking out into its own literary territory. Another striking thing in a book so rich in textured language are the things it withholds, like the word Chinese and Lucy’s wish that is cut off by the end of the novel. How Much of These Hills is Gold is surprising and devastating.