The Booker Prize longlist: ‘How Much of These Hills is Gold’ by C Pam Zhang

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C Pam Zhang’s debut novel How Much of These Hills is Gold is a tender and brilliant novel about the sham of the American Dream, the importance of family and a yearning for an identity. Set against the backdrop of the American Gold Rush, the story follows two recently orphaned children as they set out alone, trying to survive and to find a place called home. The book, first published by Random House on 7th April 2020, was instantly met with critical acclaim. 

The basis of the novel is the story of Lucy and her family – her parents, Ma and Ba, and her androgynous younger sister Sam. Lucy’s parents, originally from China, are two of the 300,000 prospectors who came to California in search of gold in the 1840s. Sadly, the Californian hills are not as prosperous as once thought and the family often moves from place to place in search of a better life. 

The disjointedness ties together with the plot of the novel beautifully

The novel is narrated by Lucy and opens with her and Sam trying to find a place to bury their recently deceased Ba. The narration weaves in between present and past as Zhang threads together three different, but decisively linked stories: Lucy’s present, Lucy’s past, and Ba’s past. The chopping and changing between different stories is perhaps an odd choice; as a result, the novel can sometimes feel fractured and disjointed. However, this disjointedness ties together with the plot of the novel beautifully as the family is uprooted and Lucy constantly searches for what it means to be home. Central to the novel is the relationship between her and Sam. An interesting subject that Zhang explores is the fraught relationship between a curious, softer Lucy and a stubborn, sharp Sam. Through their interactions, Zhang explores the idea that two people living in the same environment can have wildly different experiences and can still maintain a kind of unspoken bond. Between Lucy and Sam, each has their own kind of half-truths about what has happened to them.

The theme of identity is another key topic in the novel. As a member of a Chinese-American family, Lucy yearns for a sense of belonging in the only country she has ever known, only to be rejected and degraded with racial slurs. Zhang, who was born in Beijing but moved to the States when she was four, acknowledges this yearning in her own life, saying that “growing up I was caught between the pressure to remain Chinese and to assimilate as American […] I yearned to fit in, but was rejected at every turn with the question, “But where are you really from?”” It is a sad truth that the questions which doggedly follow Lucy around are still haunting immigrants and children of immigrants all around the world today. After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, Zhang’s exploration of being othered in your home country feels more pertinent than ever before. 

Zhang’s exploration of being othered in your home country feels more pertinent than ever

Surprisingly perhaps, Zhang also touches upon the impact of the gold rush on the environment. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the hills and the land in the novel, both symbolically and as a setting for the story. The California hills lie at the heart of the novel, and so it feels all the more gut-wrenching when Lucy describes the damage that man’s greed has done. It’s an unexpected, although not unwelcome, take-away from the book.How Much of These Hills is Gold is a raw, wonderful and poignant tale of family, identity and belonging. Zhang weaves together Lucy’s traumas and her aching for a home in a way that sweeps the reader of their feet and makes it difficult to remember that Lucy is a child. It’s a dazzling debut novel and has left readers and critics alike excited to see Zhang’s future in the literary world.

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