Maxine Alterio “Ribbons & Grace”

A first novel, ‘A tender yet tragic love story’ according to the Otago Daily Times, I came across Maxine Alterio’s “Ribbons & Grace” while browsing the NZ book section at Paper Plus.

The prologue, talking about love, birth, death and cultures reveals the outcome of the story – we know that the lover and the baby are dead. We know about the racial tensions in colonial Arrowtown: “You see, Chinese sojourners were not welcome in this small mining town in the South Island of New Zealand.”  The language and images used are unusual: …” And I will speak of shadow times, as well as happy ones, for stories, like people, have many sides. We must study them in different ways before we learn what they have to teach us.”

Three people tell their story in sequence, which enables the reader to discover how the same events are perceived from the different realities. 

Ming Yuet’s story begins as a poor 10-year old girl in 1800s rural China, observing her world with curiosity and slowly dawning understanding. She writes about her life in China, her travels and arrival in New Zealand, her life as a man and coal miner in Arrowtown. Her voice is poetic, and the turn of phrase is obviously not English. “We lived in caves in the Chinese camp through another harsh winter, when cold crawled into our bones.” Ming Yuet tends to find small nuggets of beauty and light to brighten the hardship of her life.

Her story ends before she meets Conran, yet he is already at its fringes, as “he came to me on the wind, playing joyful music that swept away my darkness.”

Conran, an Orkney stonemason and musician, writes about the parallel white man’s Arrowtown with brief reflections to his own past. His story begins where Ming Yuet’s ends – he describes how they meet, fall in love and ultimately become lovers despite all obstacles. Conran’s description of his growing love for Ming Yuet is romantic and tender.

Ida, the third narrator, is a practical, no-nonsense woman and is introduced as such; by Conran as “Ida, who was respected in the district for her nursing skills and healing potions but scorned in some quarters for her forward-thinking ways.” Her story begins - while she’s rolling bandages, annoyed that a horse-drawn cart speeding too fast over the dirt road might ruin her washing - with Conran’s violent death, and continues with its aftermath. The main strength of Ida’s story lies in reflection on what makes a good man beyond race, religion and culture, and observations on the effect the violent death of a respected man has on the small community.

Knowing the story’s outcome did not diminish the tension, yet strangely it increased the desire to know what happened, and what caused this tragic outcome.

Thinking about my own arrival in New Zealand – complaining how utterly cold it was in the turn-of-the-century villa with drafty windows, only an open fire and the frost creeping through the floor boards. Never before had I lived in a place where the ice flowers were on the inside of the windows.

Reading about life in winter in the caves of Arrowtown made me realize how luxurious my misery was. Challenged by the effect of my accent that immediately identifies me as a foreigner I acknowledge how pleasant my foreignness is compared to being a Chinese miner.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I keep on reading, and reading immigrants’ stories.