Author: Alice Pung
Genre: Young Adult
Publisher: Black Inc Books
Publication Date: 22nd October 2014
Rating: 5/5 stars
When my dad dropped us off at the front gate, the first things I saw were the rose garden spreading out on either side of the main driveway and the enormous sign in iron cursive letters spelling out LAURINDA. No ‘Ladies College’ after it, of course; the name was meant to speak for itself.
Laurinda is an exclusive school for girls. At its secret core is the Cabinet, a trio of girls who wield power over their classmates – and some of their teachers.
Entering this world of wealth and secrets is Lucy Lam, a scholarship girl with sharp eyes and a shaky sense of self. As she watches the Cabinet at work, and is courted by them, Lucy finds herself in a battle for her identity and integrity.
Funny, feisty and moving, Laurinda explores Lucy’s struggle to stay true to herself as she finds her way in a new world of privilege and opportunity.
This book piqued my interest when it was nominated for The Stella Prize, the only young adult book in the long-list. It definitely deserved its place. This book can hold its own amongst masterpieces.
Lucy Lam, an Asian girl from the poorer side of town, is the inaugural recipient of the Equal Access scholarship to Laurinda, an exclusive girls school in Melbourne. Written as a letter to her best friend Linh, Lucy struggles to maintain and to reconcile her identity between school and home.
The child of Vietnamese refugees, Lucy studies in extreme privilege, but each night at home she is responsible for her younger brother while her mother sews frantically in the garage and her father works late night shifts. The dichotomy between her two worlds is harsh, reinforcing the privilege many live with. After this beautiful and heart-wrenching quote, I will never again use the term ‘tacky’ lightly. It put me right in my place.
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.
At school, the Cabinet, the exclusive ‘popular’ group, rules the roost. Lucy becomes associated with them through her remedial English tutor, who happens to be mother to one of the members. Mrs Leslie takes Lucy on as a project outside school as well, inviting her around to their expansive house, enticing her with the trimmings of wealth her own family life lacks. As she becomes entwined with the Cabinet, she must decide whether she can accept their actions, which result in injury to other students and even the resignation of staff.
The school and the headmistress were incredibly pretentious. I laughed when the headmistress was discussing Lucy’s need for English tutoring because her old school had not studied the classics. Young adult readers will rage at this derogatory line from the headmistress’ mouth:
And we don’t study any books considered young adult literature.
Lucy is a marvellous character, as is Linh, to whom the story is directed. I also loved Lucy’s parents. It was desperately upsetting to see how little support anyone from Lucy’s family was given. There is a terrible scene where Lucy is told that she lacks the authority to tell the school she is sick, but her mother, who speaks no English, cannot confirm and thus the school demands a doctor’s certificate. This doesn’t sit well with Lucy, who has been paying the household bills and translating for her mother since she was very small.
The book had a huge abundance of brilliant quotes. I read with Post-It notes in hand. Every line is just so stunning and it really makes you think. One of my favourites was this:
You are not truly good until you are tested, and even then you might become a worse person.
Although the book is young adult literature, and thus an easy read, it is a powerful story about the migrant communities in Australia. I find myself comparing it to Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi in that it effectively displays the life of migrant children who are both Australian and yet maintain a connection to their parents’ culture. It is a stunning piece of work and effectively portrays this section of Australian society, giving them a voice in mainstream literature.
Every Australian should read this book about class and race in Australia today. I hope Alice Pung continues to write in the young adult genre, because she has totally nailed it!