Alice Pung, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2021, Black Inc, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘One Hundred Days’ by Alice Pung

Fiction – paperback; Black Inc; 244 pages; 2021.

A mother’s obsessive love for her daughter is at the heart of Alice Pung’s profoundly moving novel One Hundred Days.

I have previously read Pung’s extraordinary memoir Her Father’s Daughter, a moving account of what it was like growing up in Australia with Cambodian parents who had fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge, so I was keen to read this one. I was not disappointed!

In this gripping story, certainly one of the best I have read in 2021 (I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t make my top 10 at the end of the year), teenage Karuna is smothered by her mother’s desire to protect her.

Because she didn’t have many small things when she was growing up, she made me her Big Thing. It was both deliberate and accidental, the way most important decisions are. […] Until the summer I turned thirteen, I hadn’t realised that she had been narrating the story of my life, including the dialogue. Until then, I believed her fairytales, because I was at the centre of them.

The pair live together in a one-bedroom housing commission flat in Melbourne, where they share a bed, making privacy between mother and daughter near on impossible.

Karuna’s mother (referred to as “Grand Mar” throughout) is a Chinese Filipino, whose life is dictated by tradition and superstition. She once ran her own make-up business for wedding parties but had to give that up when Karuna’s Greek father moved out of the family home to live with a much younger girlfriend. By day she works as a hairdresser in a busy salon run by the indomitable but kind-hearted Mrs Osman, and by night she works in a Thai restaurant.

Teenage pregnancy

When 16-year-old Karuna, who is smart and bright, falls pregnant to “a boy I liked” she refuses to tell her mother who the father is.

I can feel her head turning on the pillow, and then she asks, “Who is it?”
When I don’t answer, she says, “Do you even know who it is? Because if you don’t know who it is, we can get the police to look for them and catch them and lock them away.” She says this to me like I am five years old and don’t know about the law. “In jail,” she adds.

What ensues is a battle of wills. Karuna wants to carry on her life as normal, going to school, hanging out with her friends, but her headstrong mother has other ideas. She gets her a job in the salon, where’s she’s paid $5 a day as an apprentice (“We’ll need every cent we can get,” her mother explains because “soon there will be three mouths to feed”) but in reality, does nothing more than sweep the floors and make tea for clients.

Later, when Karuna is a month away from giving birth, her mother begins locking her indoors as part of a 100-day confinement (hence the title of the book). She controls everything she eats and everything she does, all under the guise of protecting the baby, ensuring it is born happy and healthy. But for Karuna, it is all too much and she dreams of running away, starting afresh and maybe spending more time with her dad — if only she could find the key to the lock.

Letter to an unborn child

Told entirely from Karuna’s point of view, and written as a letter to her unborn child, the narrative is fast-paced (I ate it up in a day) and not without humour. We often get glimpses of Karuna’s rage and frustration, but we can also imagine her rolling her eyes when her mother subjects her to another bit of Chinese quackery.

It’s set in the 1980s and the ongoing references to Labyrinth, a film about a Goblin King who persuades a teenage girl to swap her baby half-brother for her dreams, has parallels with Karuna’s own situation: her mother wants to raise Karuna’s child as her own so that she can go on and do other things with her life beyond motherhood.

It’s those kinds of layers of meaning, and the ways in which Pung teases out the delicate line between parental love and psychological control, that elevate One Hundred Days to a very fine novel indeed. I loved its examination of a toxic mother-daughter relationship, the wonderful voices of both characters, and the understanding that soon grows between them when the baby finally arrives.

This is my 20th book for #AWW2021 

This review was featured on Twinkl as part of their Literary Lovers campaign.

Alice Pung, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Black Inc, Book review, Cambodia, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, TBR40

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Alice Pung

Non-fiction – memoir; Kindle edition; Black Inc; 254 pages; 2013.

It seems fitting to review Alice Pung’s memoir Her Father’s Daughter on the 44th anniversary of the end of the Cambodian Civil War (17 January 1968 – 17 April 1975) and the beginning of a new deadly period in Cambodian history.

When the war ended, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (aka the Khmer Rouge) took power. During its four-year reign, the Khmer Rouge arrested, tortured and executed more than a million citizens in what is now known as the Cambodian genocide. (Around a million more died of disease and starvation.)

Alice Pung, an Australian-born writer, editor and lawyer, is the daughter of two Cambodians who fled the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Her parents sought asylum in Australia in 1980, and this memoir charts Alice’s early adulthood when she unearths the story of her father’s frightening past and comes to understand some of his peculiar, over-protective behaviours.

A startling story

Her Father’s Daughter is a startling and often beautiful story, grim in places but also warm and funny and heartfelt — and totally engrossing.

Unusually for a memoir, it is written in the third person (perhaps, I suspect, to provide some emotional distance for the writer), which lends it an other-worldly, almost fictional, feel.

Her father had named her Alice because he believed this new country to be a Wonderland, where anything was possible if only she went along with his unfailing belief. His patriotism rang truer and more annoying than any bogan supremacist’s. ‘Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free.’ This to him was the most beautiful national anthem in the world. There was golden soil and wealth for toil. Who wanted to be anywhere else? In other countries, where their anthems were all about rinsing the land in blood of the brothers?

It examines Pung’s growing realisation that her father has been deeply traumatised by past events at the same time that she, herself, is trying to stand on her own two feet as a young independent woman. Keen to forge out on her own, she’s often annoyed by her father’s meddling, his inability to understand her need to travel and explore the world, his hurt when she won’t heed his advice to settle down and get married, to eschew a potential career in law for one helping him run his Retravision store.

To live a happy life, he believes, you need a healthy short-term memory, a slate that can be wiped clean every morning, like one of those toys he bought for his daughter when she was young – an Etch A Sketch. If you turned it upside down and shook it, your art disappeared.

It’s only when she begins to dig into her father’s story that she is able to understand that his fears for her future and her happiness come from a very dark place. She travels to China and Cambodia, meeting family members and other survivors, and hearing their harrowing tales of deprivation, torture and survival.

There is a lot of death in this story, but there are funny moments too. Pung paints her father as a quirky character with odd character traits, but she does so with fondness and respect. It reads very much as a love letter to him.

And the prose, so astonishing in its clarity of thought and vision and honesty, in its preparedness to discuss difficult topics, is often wry and always original. Her sentences have a dark beauty to them, as these examples show:

His parting gift was a pomegranate from his travels. He gave her an orb of perfect seeded gems encased in incarnadine, but inside her ribcage was rotting fruit.

And:

She didn’t feel too independent. There had been hours of loitering alone, feeling lost, feeling like there were feral kittens fighting in her solar plexus.

And:

The skies were clear then too, and the stars winked like unforgiving blades.

Courageous tale

I really loved this story, for its honesty, its courage, its inspiration and its love. In exploring her own Asian roots and telling her father’s own troubled history, Pung has crafted a powerful story about tenacity, family heritage, intergenerational trauma — and hope.

Her Father’s Daughter was shortlisted for numerous awards in Australia and won the Non-Fiction Prize in the 2011 Western Australian Book Awards.

For another take on this book, please see Karenlee Thompson’s eloquent review, which has been posted on Lisa’s blog.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers’ by Loung Ung: an emotionally wrenching memoir about Ung’s traumatic childhood under the Khmer Rouge.

This is my 15th book for #TBR40 and my 8th book for #AWW2019