In author and music producer Jamie Marina Lau’s debut experimental novel, Pink Mountain on Locust Island, fifteen-year-old protagonist Monk lives with her “grumpy brown couch” of a father—a washed-up art teacher who spends his days watching nature documentaries, shouting game show answers, and catering to his budding Xanax dependency. When she meets artistic high school senior Santa Coy (email@example.com) in an internet café, he gives Monk his computer. Monk thinks she and Santa Coy might romantically transcend the friendliness of their initial encounter. After Santa Coy devises an art scheme with her father, Monk is alienated and wonders why they seek art from everywhere but her. Such a conspiracy then fuels the novel’s narrative trajectory as Monk spirals through peculiar assignments involving a questionable and sometimes violent cast of healers and charlatans.
Lau’s novel is narrated via fragmented vignettes of Monk’s life, which—in the defiance of grammar conventions—manifest like diary entries. Some chapters come to life by incorporating bulleted lists, chats, menus, and letters. Each miniature chapter is comprised of abstract prose that brims with kaleidoscopic descriptions of the gritty auditory, olfactory, and visual aspects of urban culture in an Australian Chinatown—one with fish head sales, cowboys on scooters, and Chinese opera.
Lau indulges in the art of language as she spares the conspicuous details to meditate poetically on the monotonous, the mundane, and the eccentric. That is, hieroglyphic sudokus, yum cha, couch shows, clam dinners, an aunt who distrusts nail clippers, and the art of washing used paintbrushes:
Once we’re inside I run hot water from the kitchen sink to rinse mugs left with colour stains from Santa Coy’s brushes. This is a tomb. I am washing the dead artist’s loin cloths. Santa Coy claims his work is about death, even though he has never died. And maybe he’s being ironic. He brings me more mugs to wash. He says, thanks dinky.
The prose is undoubtedly replete with reflective poeticism, metaphors, and similes. Metaphors about cowboys, locusts, panthers, and pharaohs are such lovely and inventive keystones of the novel:
The desert locust is notorious. Today is a praying mantis voyage with four lighters in my back pocket. Future burning like desert locusts sprawling in buzzing masses all over one-fifth of the world’s land surface. Simmering the earth with one species. Newspapers and recyclables to spread contagiousness and fear and confidence, and power and intellect.
Similes are a prolific expression of Lau’s writing style and the narrative’s imagery, though they oftentimes become relentless and obscure, especially when comparing an apartment to a petrol station and coconut butter just before noting that the dimness of a chandelier is like “wasted butter.” Such similes strive to reinvent hackneyed descriptions, but ultimately confuse the scene’s imagery. By the end, it is simple to be inspired, but it is difficult to navigate the significance of reoccurring metaphors. Perhaps it is worth considering whether that is the point, though—to embody the profound and clumsy language of a teenager and to emphasize the aimless and cumbersome nature of adolescence.
Much of the narrative tension is creatively submerged beneath the surface level of the prose. Lau’s language is elastic, so scenes are described via Monk’s abstract observations that must be carefully interpreted as if experiencing the novel firsthand; her father’s addiction and her sister’s unhappy marriage are alluded to but never explicitly acknowledged. Moreover, the racial stereotyping Monk endures as a Chinese Australian is cleverly muted to signify that her being referred to as “Ling Ling” and “oriental” is a stale, distasteful reoccurrence—not a definition of her identity.
Considering the youthfulness of her craft, Lau is a promising novelist with a commanding and expressive craft that exemplifies the power of her perception and words. Her artistic capabilities beyond the page permeate the prose to create a visceral literary performance of the adolescent experience in a digitalized world. Art is a thematic instrument for a hostile setting that Monk must navigate, as with life and the Asian diaspora. The novel especially underscores how teenage protagonists should be characterized in coming-of-age novels by authentically encompassing the angst, awkwardness, and boredom of adolescence, which is often omitted or unsuccessfully portrayed in canonized young adult fiction. It is delicately composed of the ravening materialistic tendencies of the human experience, but it is accompanied by a sense of wonder and hope.
Pink Mountain on Locust Island isn’t a book you fall in love with instantaneously. Like tea, Lau slowly boils the water and brews the leaves while you wait across the table; and, when it finishes, you are served with a soulful cup of surreal rejuvenation.
Pink Mountain on Locust Island, by Jamie Marina Lau. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Coffee House Press, September 2020. 248 pages. $16.95, paper.
Shyanne Hamrick is a creative writing student at Winthrop University. Her poem, “Yours Truly,” has appeared in Winthrop’s literary magazine, The Anthology. She aspires to be a novelist and poet one day. When she isn’t writing poetry and short stories, you’ll find her playing an intense game of Chameleon with her family or unsuccessfully knitting sweaters for her dog, Pumpkin.