Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Alice Pung
Paperback, 22 October 2014, 352pp, ISBN 9781863956925
It would be a rare reader that didn’t feel an affinity for the protagonist in Alice Pung’s charming coming-of-age story, Laurinda. The is something universal about fifteen year old Lucy Lam’s dislocation as she tries to navigate the clique-iness, the odd social mores, and the subtle bullying that takes place at Laurinda, a prestigious private school to which Lucy has received the first equity scholarship. The novel is structured into a series of letters written as a kind of ongoing confession from Lucy to Linh, Lucy’s old friend, whose disapproving reception becomes increasing obvious as the book progresses.
Lucy is from a Chinese-Vietnamese family, and is more surprised than anyone when she wins the scholarship over some of her more hardworking co-students at the multi-cultural local Catholic school she has ben attending. Her home in Melbourne’s socially disadvantaged Western Suburbs is a world apart from the privileged students she begins to interact with at her new school. she struggles to fit into the new world of Laurinda, while continuing to look after her younger brother, “The Lamb” to help her mother who works long hours doing piecework in the garage, and maintain contact with her old friends. Lucy’s voice is a rich one that develops through the story as she begins to question the standards that are so deeply embedded into the society she’s thrust into, and that create tension for her as she becomes an “ambassador” both for the Chinese/Vietnamese community within the school, and a representative of the value of hard work within her community at home:
At school I may have looked like a try-hard, super-polished version fo everyone else in my immaculate uniform, but in this neighbourhood I stood out like a beacon, a sign to small business owners and factory workers that the next generation would belong to a different class. This was an outfit not made for messing up, or for hacking away at cow carcasses, or for hiding in back rooms threading needles. This outfit was made for a seated life, a life of air-conditioning, long lunches and weekends away in semi-rural cottages. (70)
As the the ‘nice’ bullying gets out of hand, hurting other students and teachers, Lucy begins exploring her own sense of self, her values, and what it will mean to be ‘accepted’ at Laurinda. As part of her development, she begins to perceive how the power structures at the top of the school support those at the bottom. It’s easy to empathise with Lucy as she experiences a range of different prejudices, from becoming the ‘pet project’ of the “cabinet” – a mod-squad of three elite girls from wealthy families who are used to maintain the status quo.
Pung does an excellent job of contrasting the wealthy homes and privileged suburbs that the parents of Laurindans live in, with Lucy’s impoverished suburb of Stanley. The contrasts are rich with sensual depictions that are evoked as much by the foods that are eaten and smelled, as by the visual imagery. This is paralleled by the contrast between Lucy’s growing introspection as she struggles through her transitions, and the collective voice of the ‘cabinet’, whose leadership of the school is partly defined by the amount of money their parents donate to the school, and partly by their natural assumption of superiority taught to them by their parents. Lucy’s awakening is stimulated by the way this group and their parents reduce her to a cultural stereotype through their fawning mis-perceptions. Her growing sense of self is most potent when she finally sees through Mrs Grey, the icy Head of Middle School:
I forced myself to look Mrs Grey in the eye in case she thought I was being evasive. I didn’t see myself reflected back. Instead of a human being, she seemed to see me solely as a human doing, and all my doings had to add to the prestige of Laurinda. (221)
There is a fairly dramatic plot twist in the book which will take readers by surprise (no spoilers here) and which provides the theme of the story. Laurinda is a fast and easy read that is appropriate for readers of all ages. It is a powerful and important story, that shines a light on class distinctions, on subtle and not so subtle racism, and on the value of finding your own voice.