“Popularity – and power – was based on things that could not be seen or felt – on ideas planted in other people’s minds”
– Alice Pung, Laurinda
Welcome to my first review of the 2015 Stella Prize longlist! It is not the book I planned to start with but the lure of YA was too hard to resist!
I was lucky enough to go to the launch of Laurinda last year with a trip to the Black Inc office. The opportunity to meet Alice Pung was not one to be passed up; I had read parts of her non-fiction titles at university and really enjoyed the way she wrote. It was such a pleasure to discover that the voice she writes with is true to her own – she speaks with passion, honesty and warmth and they are the very qualities that shine through her work. Laurinda is her first piece of fiction and she has totally nailed it! Having attended five high schools in six years, Alice has both the knowledge and experience to write a scarily accurate portrayal of high school. Within the first few pages I was squirming in discomfort – who really wants to remember the days of hormones, cliques and teen drama?
Lucy Lam is the fifteen-year-old daughter of two Vietnamese/ Chinese immigrants living in a low socio-economic area of Melbourne. With the encouragement of her parents, Lucy sits an exam for the prestigious girl’s school, Laurinda, and after being accepted, is thrown head first into a world so unlike her own. The school exudes prestige, wealth, expectation and above all, privilege. Lucy is an outsider and sees the behaviour of the teachers and her classmates from a perspective missed by those involved in the school. After witnessing a distressing exchange between a student and teacher, Lucy comments, “that was when I learned a very important early lesson: here at Laurinda, mistakes meant annihilation.” Here, Lucy is referencing the Cabinet – a trio of girls – who are the ultimate mean girls and rulers of the school. The Cabinet are responsible for keeping the elusive ‘Laurinda spirit’ alive, no matter the cost. The story follows Lucy’s journey over her first year at Laurinda.
I found this novel to be an incredibly powerful piece of writing. Alice’s insight is incredible – her characters are carefully constructed, her setting often symbolic and the language is spot on. The behaviour and messages in this book are so important – they can easily be applied to all aspects of one’s life. Power is prevalent in schools, the working world and in homes. Lucy is in an un/fortunate situation where two worlds collide and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. There is a culture at Laurinda where students get away with bullying everyone, even teachers, reputations are formed with the quietest whisper and girls seek the friendship of people they don’t even like because of the ‘protection’ they offer. The girls of Laurinda are ‘insulated by privilege’ with a lack of awareness of the impact of their behaviours and actions. Alice makes several references to animals and how the smiles of the girls beneath the Cabinet looks more like the bearing of teeth, an action associated with being threatened.
Lucy’s home life could not be more different. Her parents work long hours in low paying jobs to provide the best life they can for their family. Lucy’s mother is content with her simple comforts because it is more than she had previously had. She takes pride in the work she does and what she owns however Lucy starts to see her life from the perspective of her peers; the beautiful things poor people can afford are seen as ‘tacky’ to those more fortunate. Lucy struggles with her identity; should she be proud of her upbringing or should she allow herself to be shamed by her peers because it is different to what they know? Lucy’s mother says (when discussing her own friends), “I never tell them about our lives. You know why? It’s not because I am ashamed. It is because some things are just good, too good to be judged.” How often in life do we sit back and appreciate what we have in front of us instead of what we think we are going without? Lucy is reminded that you don’t have to be the smartest or the best but honest and kind, to others and yourself.
For Alice’s readers, this is such an important message to hear and the reason this book is one of those fabulous reads that crosses over both teen and adult readers is because the messages are timeless. High school is something we must all go through and the experiences we have shape us as we continue on in life. We are not the sum of someone else’s opinions nor must we be made to act in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable or unsure. As an aspiring adult I certainly need reminding of this occasionally. I am so very excited for Alice and her place on the long list – it is worthy of every accolade that comes its way!