Margot McGovern reviews Alice Pung’s YA novel, Laurinda.
Fifteen-year-old Lucy Lam can’t believe her luck when she wins a scholarship to Laurinda, one of the city’s most exclusive private schools. And her family couldn’t be prouder: having arrived as refugees from Vietnam a decade earlier, her father is a factory shift worker and her mother fills illegal sewing orders for designer brands in their back shed. They see Lucy’s scholarship as her ticket out of the western suburbs. But before Lucy can start thinking about university and her future career, she has to survive Laurinda.
At her old Catholic school, Christ Our Saviour, Lucy was a leader among her peers. Fitting in was easy because even though her friends didn’t all share her cultural background, most of their parents were also new to Australia and they’d grown up in working-class Stanley, just like her. But the girls at Laurinda have never been to Stanley, and Laurinda is nothing like Christ Our Saviour.
…Back at Christ Our Saviour, it was okay to drift in and out of friendship groups, so long as you weren’t a backstabber or someone with an annoying habit like a tendency to squeal in a high-pitched voice or lie pathologically about your boyfriends… At Laurinda it didn’t happen like that. Floaters didn’t exist here: you had to attach yourself to the bottom of some massive Friend Ship like a clinging barnacle, and if you were at the bottom of the ship, you had to go wherever that ship sailed.
At Laurinda the girls are outwardly well behaved, but underneath their politeness, theirs is a world of subtle, complex rules where ‘mistakes meant annihilation’. And these rules are strictly enforced by ‘a trio of girls so powerful they were collectively known as “the Cabinet”.’ When the Cabinet take an interest in Lucy she knows she should feel grateful, but she doesn’t agree with their behaviour and can’t help feeling that their interest in her is only skin deep.
Does Lucy really want to fit in if it means joining the Cabinet? How is she supposed to embody the Laurinda spirit when she has to help her mother with her sewing and babysit her little brother instead of playing sport and joining the debating team? Most importantly, can she enjoy the opportunities Laurinda has to offer while still remaining true to herself?
Laurinda is a story of identity and conflicting desires. Lucy struggles to balance the pressure to fit in with the need to maintain her unique identity. It’s a conflict all teenagers experience to some extent, our adolescent years being a time when we often feel torn between our families and our peers. However, for Lucy the conflict is particularly challenging as she must negotiate both class and cultural boundaries.
The narrative is written as a series of letters from Lucy to her friend ‘Linh’, who embodies the Stanley way of life Lucy feels she’s leaving behind. Through her letters Lucy tries to gain perspective on the world she’s come from and the world she’s moving into. This epistolary style works well a vehicle for exploring Lucy’s changing identity and the increasing gap between who she was and who she’s becoming. However, Linh’s occasional appearances in the story read as clunky, heavy-handed attempts to misdirect the reader and weaken what is otherwise a strong narrative.
Pung has a keen eye for detail and her descriptions of Stanley and Lucy’s home life depict two very different worlds:
Brodie would have called the things in our home ‘tacky’, the term used by wealthy people to describe the most beautiful things poor people could afford—machine-embroidered bedspreads and plastic flowers in plastic vases moulded to look like crystal. Blouses with multi-layered ruffles. Enormous stuffed toys from Kmart. A plastic fluorescent print of Jesus Christ with a heart that lit up. How could I joke about tacky things without also laughing at my own mother and the way she cared for these possessions more carefully than Amber cared for the Leslie’s Moulinex blender? How could I buy a $3 chocolate croissant without feeling like I had wasted half an hour of her labour?
To be a part of the Cabinet, I’d had to keep my true self apart. And there’s only so much of yourself you can hide, Linh, before you start to fall apart.
Even if the reader can’t relate to Lucy’s experiences directly, Pung makes it easy to sympathise with her struggle to find her place and establish her identity. However, in creating these two distinct worlds, Pung walks a fine line between offering genuine insight and falling back on stereotypes. For example, Laurinda’s hothouse culture appears the result of keen observation, with the students’ narrow understanding and use of subtle, sexualised language displayed with stinging accuracy:
There was something creepy about the femininity at Laurinda, something so cloistered and yet brimming with stifled sex that it reminded me of the Victorian whalebone corsets we once saw at Werribee Park Mansion, which kept everything cramped tight, until the stitches unravelled and out poured mounds of naked pink and white. It was the femininity of tiny éclairs and tea cups, crocheted collars and little pearl earrings, the young-girl-to-old-woman transition that skipped sexuality altogether, so that when you saw it … it was a garish as a scarlet A on the chest.
I was discovering a new language here, the language of Laurinda’s snarky and disgruntled majority. A language that was peppered with sexual innuendo, because proper Laurinda girls simply did not do sex. It was too visceral. No one except Gina acknowledged that we might have crushes or want boyfriends just as badly as the girls from Christ Our Saviour. No one faced up to the reality that maybe some girls were already having sex, and a lot of it. We were meant to be above all that.
However, other elements don’t quite ring true. The students’ (and their parents’) near complete ignorance of other cultures seems implausible. A private school mother who’s never heard of rice paper rolls? Another mother referring to Lucy as Mrs Leslie’s ‘Pygmalion Project’ to her face? An Auburn Academy boy who can’t compute that Lucy isn’t an exchange student? The extent of the Cabinet’s power is also excessive, as is the extent to which the head of the middle school turns a blind eye to their reign of terror.
Lucy is smart and funny with a keen sense of justice. However, for much of the story she’s unwilling to act, preferring to quietly criticise Laurinda, Stanley and increasingly her own family from the sidelines. In this, she’s a highly realistic character; however, she spends so much time and energy thinking on who she wants to be, that when she finally speaks up for herself it’s a little underwhelming, especially in the wake of the Cabinet’s extreme actions.
There’s been some talk of late about the lack of diversity in Australian Young Adult fiction, and Laurinda takes steps towards addressing that. Through Lucy, Pung speaks from the margins and explores the difficulties young immigrants face in finding a place for themselves where they can remain connected to their heritage but also feel included in and make valuable contributions to their adopted country.
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