Katelin Farnsworth reviews Stone Sky, Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Stone Sky Gold Mountain
by Mirandi Riwoe
Reviewed by KATELIN FARNSWORTH
‘Meriem hopes that her wounds too will mend, that her jagged edges and disfigured depths will fade. Disappear. That one day she is restored enough to abide a loved one’s touch upon her skin’
I like stories that are raw, unflinching in their portrayals. Stories that pull you apart in some way, stretch you out, move you slowly, deeply, viscerally.
Dirt, sweat, rust, red, blisters, gullies, scrubland, blood. Cicadas and birdsong. These are some of the arresting images Stone Sky Gold Mountain conjures up. Bristling with poetry, almost every line in the book cuts in, places you somewhere else. Unsettling and thought-provoking, Stone Sky Gold Mountain is an accomplished piece of literary writing from a controlled and highly talented author. Indeed, Riwoe has many awards under her belt already, with a Stella Prize shortlisting for her novella The Fish Girl (Seizure, 2017) and a recent The University of Queensland Fiction Book Award for Stone Sky Gold Mountain.
We begin with Ying, and her brother, Lai Yue. Arriving in North Queensland, to a Chinese settlement, the two siblings hope to earn enough money to travel back home and buy back their enslaved siblings. It is 1877, the Gold Rush era. The camp they live in prickles with violence, teeming with gut-wrenching horrors and racism. Heavy but yet not difficult to read, Riowe is careful with her displays of racism; the writing is never didactic or moralising; instead the prose feels free and honest, acknowledging a harsh and sick reality without trying to glorify or shock for shock’s sake. In male dominated goldfields, Ying disguises herself as a boy, terrified that the truth will be uncovered.
Atmospheric, bringing to light an aspect of history in colonial Australia that’s often forgotten or simply disregarded, the story, particularly at the start, progresses slowly and took me time to digest and understand. But I am better for it. This isn’t a book that should be read quickly, although the writing is lush, full, and deep with nuanced observations. I think this is a that book yearns to be sat with, to linger within you, right inside your body, to be felt. Riwoe is one of those special writers; creating worlds and putting words together that truly feel transformative as you read, allowing you to uncover new layers of understanding all the time.
Strongly character driven and sparser on plot, the narrative shifts between three perspectives (Ying’s, Lai Yue’s, and Meriem’s). Lai Yue finds work as a carrier on an overland expedition; in Maytown, Meriem is a white girl, disliked and excluded by the town, working as a maid for local sex worker, Sophie. Ying befriends Meriem, finding a joyful space away from her brother, who is desperately unhappy and self-destructive. While an unlikely friendship, Ying and Meriem strike up a close bond. The relationship between Ying and Meriem was a pleasure to read, touching in its sentimentality without being cloying or over the top. While their verbal communication is light, they communicate in other ways; gifting food and sharing what little they can with one another. It was these scenes I loved these most, the gentleness the two of them shared was striking:
‘Merri smiles, revealing pink gums…Ying smiles back at her, her face softening into the tree. The air is muggy with the threat of rain and smoke…they listen to the comfortable dollop of a fish breaching the water’s surface, and along the river’s shingle banks, the branches of the paperbarks reach for each other and entwine’ (chapter 25, location 2160)
Ying also finds comfort working for Jimmy, a local shop owner. Each character in the novel is rendered convincingly:
‘Jimmy has the grace of a crane, his soft face is long and his hair thins a little on top. Behind his spectacles his eyes are kind. He doesn’t allow spitting, smoking or swearing in the shop, and always insists on a washed face, clean hands’ (chapter 10, location 1064)
The tone and mood of the novel is deployed seemingly effortlessly. The language is unpretentious but always vivid, original, captivating. All three characters wrestle with their own demons in varying ways. When a serious crime takes place in the town of Maytown, suspicion falls on Ying. The book shows us the best and worst of people, culminating in an exciting and well-paced finish.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain is consistently powerful, filled with tension. It’s well-paced and readable, despite its heavy themes of pain and loss. Feelings of connection and displacement are dealt with unflinchingly, and we are drawn intimately into the characters, into their emotions and challenging circumstances.
Significant questions are explored throughout – questions of identity and self, belonging, gender, resettlement, and migration. A destabilising story, the novel breaks down many of the dominant narratives we know about the nation called Australia, giving space to marginalised voices and examining ‘us and them’ notions. The narrative suggests history has not been accurately understood or documented, and as you read, questions rise to the surface: How far has this nation really come in its own prejudices? Do we know the full story? Can ever know the full story? In subtle terms, it poses the question: Do we, white Australia, even want to know the full story? Do we care?
‘Perhaps he doesn’t have loved ones across the ocean far from here, waiting for him. Perhaps they are lost. She has heard of her countrymen who have fled violence and homelessness to come to this place. But to not return! She’s never considered the idea’ (chapter 10, location 1029).
Without sanctimony, the book asks the reader to examine their prejudices, to consider the stories they’ve been told, and the stories that are still continually shared and perpetuated.
History, or we what know of history, does not always tell the truth, is not always accurate. In Australia, stories go unheard all the time, unacknowledged, pushed to the sidelines, forgotten about. With a refusal to listen, Australia is land of hidden layers, unheard narratives, and narrow view points. It’s these hidden layers the book is occupied with, giving voice to the unvoiced, making space for the those who’ve rarely been given such room.
As Mindy Gill writes in Sydney Review of Books ‘there is the way things have been told, and the way things were’. In other words, in this colonised land, single perspectives become the only perspective. Stone Sky Gold Mountain deftly challenges these skewed angles, asking us to reconsider what we think is true, and why we think it’s true. In doing so, the novel unpacks and disrupts our notion of this country and its brutal past (and ongoing present). This is brave writing, and Riwoe allows breathing space for the reader to sit between words, to consider what has been left absent, and imagine from there.
Riwoe steers the narrative ahead confidently; the writing is finely structured, with intricate detail and lyrical descriptions. An acute book of extreme strength, from its depictions of the land, to its layered characters, readers are invited to break open stale ideas and pre-conceived notions. With depth and insight, Riwoe digs into structural racism in a novel that I suspect will reveal more with each subsequent read. Rendered in enthralling and exquisite detail, Stone Sky Gold Mountain gives us a way in to realties we may never before have encountered in our reading. It deserves all of its awards.
Gill, Mandy, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/review/riwoe-stone-sky-gold-mountain/
KATELIN FARNSWORTH is a writer from the Dandenong Ranges. She has been published in Overland, Tincture Journal, The Victorian Writer and Award Winning Australian Writing 2015 and 2017. Her manuscript ‘Found Again’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Penguin Literary Prize.