Books

Mirandi Riwoe
Stone Sky Gold Mountain

The plot unfurls slowly in Mirandi Riwoe’s Stone Sky Gold Mountain, which opens in the Palmer River goldfields in early colonial Australia. Disguised as a man for her physical safety, Ying toils with her brother Lai Yue in the hope of procuring enough of a fortune to take back to China, but life on the fields is relentless. They soon realise that gold-digging is untenable, and head to nearby Maytown in search of more stable work. There, second-generation British settler Meriem has been banished from her home town after an unwanted pregnancy. Now a housekeeper for sex worker Sophie, she is shunned by the townsfolk. After Lai Yue leaves for an overland expedition and Ying begins working as a shopkeeper for local Chinese man Jimmy, Meriem’s and Ying’s paths converge. They embark on a friendship coloured by caution and curiosity, an archetypal interracial tale of differences as both protagonists awkwardly feel their way around each other.

Using the perspectives of Ying, Lai Yue and Meriem, Riwoe weaves together an elaborate tapestry of the harsh cruelties in colonial Australia. The Influx of Chinese Restriction Act is still decades in the making; racism towards the Chinese is rife. Women are expected to conform to the social mores of the Victorian era, and animals are treated better than people of colour. First Nations people are reduced to a mere footnote in society, their only mention as natives conveyed through derogatory slurs. British and Chinese migrants collude in business and crime, as the latter struggle to be regarded as equals in a power dynamic pitted against them: shop owner Jimmy is quick to please the British, and Lai Yue and his fellow expeditioners enact violence on an Aboriginal man they encounter in the bush.

As seen from her earlier book The Fish Girl, Riwoe is an accomplished writer of historical fiction. Despite a rushed ending, the character studies in Stone Sky Gold Mountain are rich, and a prevailing sense of place is established with the utmost care. True to the bloody history of colonisation on this continent, Stone Sky Gold Mountain is also a story about the brutal travails of assimilation, revealing the needless hierarchies that people establish as an excuse for survival. Riwoe’s evocations of the jarring landscape have a particularly potent impact, as she depicts those adjusting to a land that is not theirs.

Cher Tan

UQP, 264pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 18, 2020 as "Mirandi Riwoe, Stone Sky Gold Mountain".

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Reviewer: Cher Tan