Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau

In the nineties, I had a flat mate who worked for an arts festival. She was an excellent flat mate to have because we were both on tight just-moved-out-of-home budgets and one of the perks of her job was tickets to all kinds of concerts and performances – and I was often her ‘plus one’. However, I soon realised that she was wasting a ticket by taking me to any kind of interpretive dance. I appreciated the skill and athleticism of these performances but I simply didn’t enjoy it.

I’m afraid Pink Mountain on Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau was the reading equivalent of interpretative dance for me.

The story is told through short, punchy vignettes that constitute chapters (some are just a sentence or a paragraph long). A story emerges – teenage girl, Monk, lives in Chinatown with her washed-up painter father. She meets Santa Coy, who may be her boyfriend. Santa Coy inserts himself into Monk and her father’s lives, impressing them with his own brand of artwork. As Monk tries to find her place in the world, her relationships take various turns.

I understand why readers are excited by Lau – her writing is expressive and commanding, with bizarre descriptions that have you re-reading and imagining –

He rises and bubbles like dough in Grandma’s microwave oven.

Zig opens the door and inside is an oversized T-shirt mania.

Cardigan metropolis and a hushed-voice millennia.

And while ‘imagining’ is nice, Lau’s writing is also relentless. There’s a lot of language that’s tricked up. In fact so much of it, that it begins to wash over you and, when you do pause to consider the meaning of what she has written, it’s hard to ignore the nonsensical –

Before bed we watch a television show about the hazards of motorbike riding. It’s a PG-rated nine-o’clock couch show.

Everybody here is a new clam shell and fresh juicy shrimps on the island bench from Costco.

He’s a packed lunch with a suitcase and Raf cufflinks and Dad is a grumpy brown couch again.

And the use of similes quickly feels overdone –

We are in a big white space like an angel’s hot tub.

His apartment is like petrol station and coconut butter.

A big bald man with huge lungs like bombs…

…her lips like a fancy woman’s pregnancy.

Did I mention relentless? Descriptions of people’s voices are over-the-top (I longed for a simple ‘She said…’) –

…she has a voice like plump cushions.

This voice I’m doing is an ancient valley.

…my voice a big puff instead.

Her voice is a soft egg whisk.

What do these things actually mean? What is a ‘nine-o’clock couch show’? When are lungs like bombs? Does her voice sound like softly whisking eggs or is it the actual whisk? From this chaos, a plot emerges, as does a distinct style but unfortunately not a style that appealed to me.

A ‘challenging’ book can be enjoyable or a trial. In this case, I didn’t enjoy this challenging book.

2/5 Score based on my enjoyment of a book (as opposed to the skill of the author).

When we get to the resort it’s a wasteland surrounding a shiny oasis. A strange watering hole. There are Hawaiian-shirted parvenus and pina colada kings.


24 responses

    • To be frank, I would not have persisted were it not on the Stella shortlist. I guess this is where we say Stella has done her work, by getting readers to read what they might otherwise bypass!

      • And books like this have a place on shortlists: it happens to Gerald Murnane all the time. He writes brilliant books but they’re not considered ‘accessible’ so he’s never won any major prize (except for the Melbourne Prize, which is not for a particular book)… until the PM’s award last year – and I think that’s because there’s so much talk about him being nominated for the Nobel Prize that there would have been embarrassment all round if he’d never won anything here.

  1. The excerpts and your description of the style remind me somewhat of Stubborn Archivist, which I just reviewed the other week. It elicited a sort of admire-not-love response from me. Your comparison to interpretive dance made me laugh!

  2. This reminds me of when I was a reviews editor. Sometimes copy would arrive with beautifully turned sentences, carefully crafted for effect but, like you, I was left wondering what they actually meant. Sounds a bit too tricksy for its own good!

    • And I feel bad because there’s a fair bit of love for it on Goodreads. No one who had rated it one or two stars said why… I wonder if it’s because we are more sensitive to a young writer’s feelings?

  3. I love ballet and loathe interprative dance, which probably describes my reading as well. Self consciously arty writing is hard to bear, and yet every now and again it is done well, which hopefully makes up for the painfull books we must endure to come across the good ones.

    • I guess I’m curious to see what this author does next – is that simply her wacky style or did she set out to write an ambitious, experimental debut?

  4. Thanks for taking one for the team Kate!

    Seriously, though, I loved your intro re interpretive dance. I don’t mind interpretive dance even if I sometimes come away scratching my head for an interpretation. I just love dance – and if it looks beautiful, or stunning, then that can be enough because there’s beauty in the movement even if I don’t understand the content. This is probably how I’d approach this book – many of the quotes you provide make me smile or laugh. Several don’t make sense when you try to analyse them but I think the tone coveys a meaning that the words may not. I can get a sense of the “nine o’clock couch show”, though the “lungs like bombs” (without more context which I appreciate may not be there) defeats me a little. I’m not sure I have the mindset right now to take this book in.

    Still, I’d love to give this a go given all the discussion, but I really mustn’t add to the pile – I have Fiona Wright to read, and Behrouz Baroochi, and … and … and … I really want to read The bridge. Wah!

    • The quotes on their own are fine… It’s just that I could have opened any of the 244 pages and copied out any sentence – it was al too much.

      Will look forward to your thoughts on the Wright – I had it from the library but returned it unread (knowing I couldn’t squeeze it in before the Stella winner is announced).

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