Book Review: Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung


Publisher: Black Inc Books

Genre: Non-fiction, autobiography, Australian history, SE Asia.

Review in one word: Witty

This is vivid story of a family of migrants who flee from the killing fields of Cambodia to the inner west of Melbourne to find sanctuary in the early 80’s. Told from the perspective of the narrator Alice Pung, this is a master work of modern Australian non-fiction.

There is a light-hearted, funny and amusing tone to the story at times. Although there is also a fair share of darkness as well as light, with the overhanging spectre of war and genocide never too far away in the family’s memory. This depiction of an intense, strong-minded, close-knit Chinese Cambodian family living in a multi-generational setting is witty, powerful and remarkable.

On arrival to Australia, Alice’s parents and grandparents experience shock, awe and wonder at the clean, orderly and lawful streets and suburbs of Australia in comparison to Cambodia. This is a lesson for people born here to realise how lucky they are.

There are darker undercurrents to this story as well. Alice as a child is used as a tool of emotional manipulation between her mother and grandmother. She needs to adapt and cope in a variety of ways. There is a heavy burden ever-present on Alice’s shoulders as she experiences severe depression as a 17 year old, as a result of intense family pressure and expectation of high academic achievement.

I could relate to the experience of ‘otherness’ in the book. In amidst the very white (and somewhat bland) narrative of Australian culture, being ‘othered’ can be a discombobulating and disorienting experience as a young person. Finding yourself can be made extra hard during this vulnerable time when you look different from the mainstream and come from a family that has a different language or different cultural traditions.

She recounts her debutante ball:

We were on the only fully “ethnically-enhanced” table. Neylan’s mother in her jibab, Natalia’s generous, gregarious Russian parents and Nina’s glamorous Vietnamese parents. These were parents who didn’t know much English, who drove taxis and sewed collars by the boxful to send their children to a school such as this and watch them mingle with the upper eschelons of society – the children of doctors, lawyers and professionals.

That night our parents realised something that probably shook them from their sleeping dream. They realised that their children were watchers, just as they were. We watched everyone else, as tonight we watched our classmates in their smart suits and sophisticated frocks climb onto the stage to pose for photographs.

There is a beautiful sadness to this book and at times a sweet and gentle humour to it as well. Even if you are not Asian or Australian, you will still able to relate to this story and it’s emotionally raw depiction of being a young person and the complex power dynamics of extended families. The vulnerable fumblings and sproutings of nascent self-confidence and self-belief are all here, along with a curiosity and hope for the future. This is a beautifully rendered coming-of-age tale. I would give it four stars.

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Mฤori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Mฤori culture and loads more.

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