Review: Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau

Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau (Coffee House Press 2020)

Reviewed by Alicia Banaszewski

Asian-Australian author Jamie Marina Lau’s debut novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island published by Brow Books was shortlisted for Australia’s prestigious Stella Prize in 2019. It opens with a short chapter titled “Panther” that immediately throws the readers into Melbourne’s Chinatown and introduces the narrator’s father.

“On television a panther slicking its black limbs through paradise trees. Holy moly, look at this fur.

The third story of a Chinatown flat, and here the timber walls tighten around the fat Chinese man with a noodle moustache. A muddy bottle in his hand.”

The descriptions of storefronts, sights, smells, and sounds could potentially place this story in any Chinatown, in any city. The fact that the work is set in a microcosm makes it feel at once foreign and familiar. 

Lau’s protagonist, Monk, is a fifteen-year-old girl living with her father, a depressed and out of work art teacher she often refers to as a “grumpy brown couch.” She meets a high school senior, whom she calls Santa Coy in a playful reference to his email SantaCoysHotSauce, when he gives her his computer and they become friendly. He meets her father, begins to make art (among other things) with and for him, thus acting as a catalyst for the foreboding events to come.

“A mezzanine, and a boy in a beanie standing in the corner of the room chewing a disposable chopstick. His head is twiggy empty scrub fuzz, beady, exhausted eyes, a dome beanie. Folded arms and a cotton bag in the form of a rectangle. When I look at him he walks over. He walks like he’s with drums.”

There is a clear and controlled practice of restraint in the prose. Lau shows us what she wants to and hides what she likes. The chapters are small and packed full of descriptive and intriguing language that results in unique and fresh character descriptors. The titled micro-chapters read more like poetry than prose, while every snapshot adds to the tone of the work. It’s a dizzying dream.

While vignettes are flashes in the pan of depictions of conversations and debauchery, the novel takes its time when it talks about food. Monk attempts to cook fish and spaghetti with little success. The paragraphs of dishes consumed pack the quiet moments with abundance. These long lists throughout the book become a meditative resting place.

“The same corner shop yum cha. One basket of chicken feet. Suck the toes off, slurp the webs. Stir-fried radish cake called lo baak gou, also known as turnip cake. A deep-fried pumpkin-and-egg-yolk ball. Shumai congee. A variety of steam buns. You like the chicken feet don’t you. Don’t forget about the mini egg tarts or a steamed sponge cake with coconut milk to moisten. Deep-fried taro turnover, char siu sou, cheong fan, pan-fried bitter melon, beef dumpling. A pudding of black sesame in soft ball. Deep-fried bean curd skin roll — comes in threes. Rice noodle roll with deep-fried bean curd skin rolls — rolled inside a rice noodle roll”

And on. And on.

Pink Mountain on Locust Island is like looking through a keyhole into a house of mirrors. This novel is a ship in a storm. To call the book bizarre would be an insult to it. It is strange and shines a much-needed light on the hideous beauty that is a teenage girl clawing to find her identity.

The racial stereotyping and discrediting of the narrator is denounced, but rarely expanded upon. Monk is ignorantly called “Ling Ling” and Oriental multiple times throughout the novel. The frequency with which it happens forces the reader to take notice. 

“No way, Ziggy says. It’s exhilarating, real thrill. He looks at me, you got a fad Ling Ling? I tell him, my name isn’t Ling Ling. The room is perspired. He grins, calm down, he says. He grabs his guitar and starts playing the same riffs he was playing the other day.”

Jamie Marina Lau’s novel is jam-packed full of adolescent boredom, with simultaneous moments of scarcity and muchness. The grungy underbelly of the “art world” and definite awkwardness of going through puberty make for a quietly dark and dingy setting for this coming of age novel. Lau is at work on her second novel, Gunk Baby, to be published in 2021.

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