Saturday, May 9, 2015

Laurinda, by Alice Pung

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Alice Pung’s novel for young adults, Laurinda, tackles race, politics and entrenched privilege in the schoolyard with great care and honesty.

When fifteen-year-old Lucy Lam wins a scholarship to Laurinda, an upmarket college for girls, she must venture out of her decidedly down-at-heel suburb of Stanley, leave her easygoing school Christ Our Saviour, and rub shoulders with a more confident and upwardly mobile crowd of girls. Lucy is clearly out of her comfort zone. Everything she does seems awkward and out of place, right down to her too neatly pressed school uniform. There are all sorts of unspoken rules and protocols at Laurinda that she must adhere to. She’s clearly a misfit and outsider. Adding another layer of complexity to Lucy’s transition is her cultural background. Her parents are hardworking Chinese immigrants. They don't speak much English and haven't time for the small niceties of life. They're in a mad dash to try and get ahead in Australia. The adults and students at Laurinda harbor preconceptions about what it is to be the child of Chinese immigrants. They often get it hopelessly wrong.

Laurinda is run by a clique of three students – Amber, Chelsea and Brodie – who are known as the Cabinet. When Lucy tries fitting in with this group of girls who exemplify Laurinda's social hierarchy and ethos, she runs up against all sorts of moral dilemmas. Should she jettison the values of her ethnic, working class upbringing, or is it better to embrace the artificial Laurindian cosmos? Torn between the two, Lucy must try and retain her personal integrity while succeeding at her new school.

This is a fine and impressive novel for young adults from Alice Pung, well known for her memoirs of growing up Asian in Australia. Her writing is finely detailed and subtle, excelling at drawing nuanced characters. There are a lot of emotionally complex interactions that Pung must tease out in her narrative between students, teachers and parents, which she does with great skill and assurance. Thematically, the story mixes the political and the personal. In one startling passage Lucy describes the self-confidence of students who come from rich backgrounds:

“All those Laurinda girls and Auburn boys, in love with their own voices and ideas, so certain of going to university and winning internships, of moving to Canberra and maybe becoming politicians, so they could make decisions that affected people like my mum, and decisions for the grown-up versions of our Christ Our Saviour friends, girls who believed that if they lived decent, small lives of community service, their worlds would be safe.”

What makes Laurinda such a brilliant novel is its honesty. Pung writes with great care and passion about what she knows best, class and race. This is a story about an outsider who manages to find acceptance on her own terms in the turbulent world of schoolground politics. But the lessons it teaches reaches out far wider than that.

Laurinda, by Alice Pung. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863956925 RRP: $19.99

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