Having published memoir, essays and fiction, Alice Pung has demonstrated an ability to write with flair and flexibility across genres. While each story is unique, there’s a comfort in reading a book by Pung, as you know the characters and narrative will immediately absorb you. One Hundred Days does just that – it’s a glorious song of a novel and, like Pung’s Ethel Turner Prize-winning Laurinda, can be savoured by young and old.
Sixteen-year-old Karuna is pregnant, and the premise of the novel is that she’s describing her world to the child growing inside her. Karuna lives alone with her Filipina mother, “Grand Mar”, after her father has left them. Grand Mar criticises endlessly and tries to dominate her daughter’s life, but Karuna finds her own path in the spaces she’s able to. There’s nothing clichéd in this portrait of a young mother – she has determination and agency. The dalliance with the father of her child is one example of this: “I felt treacherously, lecherously good.” When Grand Mar discovers Karuna’s pregnancy, her controlling tendencies morph into something more extreme, locking her up in their “germ hole of a flat”. Karuna finds solace in secretly reading Walt Whitman and writing what we imagine will become the bones of this book.
The tale of a mother locking her daughter away has a fable-esque quality, and fairytales and myth are woven throughout the book: “And like some mythical monster, I now have two heartbeats.” At one point Karuna even refers to herself as a “housing commission Cinderella”. Alongside the idea of roles in fairytales is the way Pung undermines them. As we move through the story, Pung changes our perceptions and sympathies, building characters with depth and complexity. The minor personalities are brought to life, too, and Mrs Osman, her mother’s boss at the beauty salon, is particularly affecting.
Karuna’s voice is among the most memorable parts of this book, with its sly humour and irreverence. And Pung’s descriptions are a delight: “The muscles on her back felt as tight as the meat of an overcooked supermarket chook.” The physicality of pregnancy with its cloying scents is particularly vivid, as is the description of the baby when she’s born: “Your veiny red leaf of a tongue quivers with fury.”
The impacts of class and racism, as well as the idea of staying true to oneself, are artfully woven throughout the story. At its core, this is an uplifting story of a woman defining her own life, knowing that she will give her child the freedom to do the same.
Black Inc, 256pp, $32.99
Black Inc is a Schwartz company
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 12, 2021 as "One Hundred Days, Alice Pung".
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