Monday, March 16, 2009
Alice Pung's family escaped from Pol Pot's viscous rule in Cambodia in 1980. Her grandmother, father and mother walked through the jungles of Vietnam into Thailand, where they settled into a refugee camp for a year before they immigrated to Australia. Alice, the first child of her parent's union, was born shortly after her family's arrival there. Unpolished Gem is the story of Alice and her family's life in contemporary Australia, and the struggles they must overcome in beginning their lives after their adoption of their new home. Alice chronicles not only the family's awe at the graciousness and generosity of the Australian people and government, but the never-ending toil of her parents to continually advance and give their children the life they never had. She relates the daily power struggles between her grandmother and mother, her frightening spiral into depression, and the hidden anxieties of her first date. As her story progresses, Alice explains with clarity the struggles she experienced as a child and a young woman faced with the tremendous pressures of her life, those both outwardly and inwardly motivated. Mixed within are the stories of her parents' lives, full of struggle and a persistence that never leaves them. As she lovingly expounds on her parents, herself, and the grandmother she adores, we learn so much more about the girl behind the forced smile. Both candid and wry, Unpolished Gem tells a familiar story in a new and unfamiliar way.
This was an interesting, if acerbic tale. Both the family's struggles to leave their homeland and their attempts to incorporate themselves into their new surroundings were told with a wonderful wit, but at times the story seemed to gather more and more darkness around itself and venture into bleakness. From Alice's early childhood, the stage in their house seemed to be set for guilt and recrimination. One of the things that bothered me was the way in which Alice's mother and grandmother exploited her confidences as a young child and forced her to reveal each other's secrets. It seemed that the young girl was only a pawn in the vicious games each woman played. They both used the girl mercilessly in an attempt to find out if the other was gossiping about her, often making her complicit herself. Her grandmother consistently plied her with treats to get the verbal goods, whereas her mother made her feel shameful and inadequate for being a "word-spreader." This induced a terrible guilt in Alice, a child who did not understand at all the consequences of the game.
Other problems arose at home as well. Although Alice's father finds a quick measure of success, her mother finds the adjustments in her new life difficult to bear. She has many problems assimilating due to the language barrier and feels marginalized in the workforce. Alice's grandmother, the person with whom she is closest, carries over the stories and values of her homeland and becomes a pseudo-mother for the young girl. Alice's relationship with her grandmother seemed to give her a life focus and direction. After her grandmother's death, Alice quickly begins to morph into a bitter and cold person. But the problems really started before that for me. Alice seemed negative throughout the majority of the book. I believe that the pressure of her responsibilities towards her parents and siblings was the major contributor to this outlook. I can understand this. The problem with it, though, is that it doesn't make for very pleasant reading. Reading this book was like spending all day with a cranky and complaining teenager. At first, I thought the style was meant to be a self-depreciating and droll look at life through Alice's eyes, but as time passed, the jokes stopped being funny and started burning like acid.
Later sections dealt with Alice's crippling depression and her penchant for driving herself towards impossible standards. It was clear to me then that what I was reading was not a humorous story, but the chronicling of a deeply painful past. This book had more to do with Alice's unhappy life then it did with the story of her family. Yes, there were anecdotes about her parent's hard work, sad stories of their pasts, and silly stories of their incomprehension of their new circumstances, but above all this book read like one long grievance. By the point at which Alice goes on a pages-long rant about her parents' over-protectiveness, I had given up on this book. I eventually got tired of all the fussing and lamenting. There was just too much angst for me to enjoy this story very much. I felt that the triumph of Alice's and her family's assimilation into a new culture was something that was glaringly overlooked in this story. As Alice relates the struggles her mother and father endured daily to live their dream, she seems to stingily hold back the praise that is due to them. Instead of being proud of her mother, who works her fingers to the bone most days, she seems to grudgingly endure her company, and later openly harps on her mother's sense of traditionalism. It was frustrating to read the sentiments of Alice, who seemed so ungrateful for all the opportunities her parents had strived so hard to procure for her. It was interesting to note that her grandmother seemed to hold a place in her heart where there was no condescension or mean-spiritedness, though her grandmother was arguably more hostile towards others than her mother. I would have liked to read more about her special bond with her grandmother. It seemed that she reserved all her goodwill and good intentions towards her, and those avenues and attitudes of happiness and contentment seemed sorely lacking in this book.
I found this book to be too cynical for my liking. The continual harping and grousing annoyed me, and I felt that this book operated under the guise of a memoir but was really only an excuse for the author to unload her unhappiness and frustration on an unsuspecting reader. There was great untapped potential here, had the author only used her platform to elaborate on the triumphs and differences her family experienced instead of being unstintingly whiny. Definitely not one of my favorite memoirs.
For another take on this book, check out Aarti's review over at Booklust.