In How Much of These Hills Is Gold, C Pam Zhang draws on elements of the Old West, but with a twist

C Pam Zhang, a powerful new literary voice. Picture: Supplied

C Pam Zhang, a powerful new literary voice. Picture: Supplied

Pam Zhang begins her oddly mesmerising novel about two children adrift in the American West by inverting Woody Guthrie. Her epigraph insists, "this land is not your land".

That proposition opens up for Zhang a debate about identity and immigrants, history and home, aloneness and alienation, one which sometimes slows down an otherwise gripping story.

"Write about what you know" is surely the silliest advice given to would-be authors. How about, instead, "write about what you can conjure up and conjure with?". Zhang is a gifted magician. She has appropriated a sliver of the Old West, but with a twist.

Her story is set not during the John Ford or John Wayne glory days but after gold has played out, buffalo herds have been decimated, pure rivers polluted, a bounty set on jackal skins and hopes for better things dissipated.

This version of California "drinks your sweat and strength"; all manner of Americans have been "tearing at the land like wild dogs". Tiger skulls, snarls and stripes intrude into this strange dystopian world as talismans.

Rather than miners or cowboys, Zhang's heroes are forlorn young Chinese-Americans, trying to bury their father. A bullying drunkard in life, Lucy and Sam's father "pushed the family like a storm wind at their backs". As a corpse, he is diminished to "half-jerky, half-swamp". Later on, in retrospect, the paternal voice - incoherent, passionate, aggrieved - boosts the narrative. As for Lucy, the older child, her father's death enables her to take charge of both her brother and this story.

An Irish writer, Sebastian Barry, has now had two intriguing goes at re-framing and re-inventing American history, evoking the same historical generation as does Zhang.

This novel, though, shifts genres, settings and the known record more than Barry cares to do. Zhang, who is only 30 years old and used to work for a tech start-up, reveals quite grand ambitions for this first novel. Her Chinese immigrants do not work in the goldfields or on the railroad, as thousands did, but they do become heroes in their own story.

The children's initial journey in search of a burial site possesses an eerie, even surreal edge. When Zhang reverts to flashbacks of the Chinese family's life together, her tale becomes more prosaic, now and then, and a little leaden.

Lucy puts up with various rites of passage, none as demanding or gruelling as those she confronts on the road. When she needs to surmount truly daunting challenges, Lucy has "no more tender parts to tear" as well as an androgynous sibling with a loaded gun. By then he has equipped herself with a fighting chance to "out-stubborn" any adversary.

Throughout, Zhang reveals a remarkable gift for an arresting, idiosyncratic phrase. Many are good enough to stop a reader in her tracks, taking a moment to ponder and wonder. A town street, for instance, is found to be "shimmering and dusty as snakeskin". A character thinks "the way vultures drift without hurry". Gardens flowers are re-named, becoming "creatures with thorns trimmed and roots safe-buried".

In novels if not in life, many youngsters thrown onto their own resources prove to be wilier and quicker than their adult enemies. So it was with Jim Hawkins, Alex Rider, Nancy Drew, Frodo Baggins and Emily Bas-Thornton. So it is with Lucy.

Each of those five literary predecessors is tested on a quest, assailed by criminals, pirates (for two of them), spies and orcs. Actually, though, none of them has much to teach Lucy. She is tougher and smarter than any, able to outwit, outlast or out-sass any assault short of raw masculine violence.

Zhang's heroine wastes a few years living as a hapless attendant to a rich bourgeois, stuck "like a mule in quicksand", wearing dresses with pearl buttons and platform shoes. That is a tedious interlude, cluttered with detail about how much pretension could be introduced into daily life by wealth purloined from the goldfields.

Zhang is experimenting - with form, perspectives and approaches. Happily, she lets Lucy escape once more, for another trek with her sister, now grown, travelled and replete with menace. However intimidating Sam may have become, he still walks in Lucy's shadow.

Lucy and Sam end up seeking a reversal of the usual immigrant dream. They want to go home, to China, where, they are convinced, the buffalo are gentler and both sexes wear their hair long. Zhang toys at various phases of the novel with riffs on the notions of home and family, with the children going so far as to attempt to insert domestic comforts into a burial site.

Her themes are tugged together towards the end, in a brave and bold way which underlines a considerable talent.

Readers should not just enjoy this book but wait expectantly for the next.