Author: Alice Pung
Black Inc. RRP $19.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Sharp and observant, Laurinda is one of those page-turning books that gets its claws in and doesn’t let go until the end. A story about choices, identity and opportunity, it has a Mean Girls feel that will strike a chord in anyone who has navigated the uncertain corridors of high school.
Set in the 1990s when the Spice Girls embodied girl power, mobile phones resembled bricks and before social media became an insidious schoolyard weapon, Laurinda is told from the point of view of Lucy Lam, a scholarship student who enters the privileged world of an exclusive girls’ school. The fact that she’s a scholarship student trumpets her relative poverty; the fact that she’s Asian serves only to set her apart further. Fitting in won’t be easy as her parents think.
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.
As an outsider, Lucy has plenty of time to observe others at the school – especially the Cabinet, an unpleasant trio of girls who wield power over their classmates and some of their teachers. When the Cabinet takes her under their wing, Lucy becomes caught up in their nasty power plays and has to decide whether to stand with them or against them. Can she fit in without their influence? Or will their influence drive her away? Either way, will she be the same person she was when she first entered the college gates?
Laurinda is a clever coming-of-age novel, well written and seasoned with biting wit. Although it’s aimed at young adults, it’s got a lot to offer thematically, covering issues from race and status, to identity and belonging. I can see this one working well as a classroom study. Alice Pung nails the characterisation of a young girl trying to fit into a world far removed from her own, and highlights the issues with a balanced mix of sensitivity and honesty. She also nails the experience of an adolescent trying to navigate an uncertain world, pushing against parents but not quite ready to strike out on their own. The members of the Cabinet were well drawn and suitably awful; I see them as a metaphor for all the difficulties people face in life, where one’s sense of self is questioned and decisions have to be made.
One for lovers of Looking for Alibrandi, Mean Girls and Heathers, Laurinda is a thought-provoking fiction debut that sets a high bar for its author. I look forward to reading more from Alice Pung.
Available from Penguin Books Australia. My copy was courtesy of Black Inc Books.
Bookish treat: This takes me back to the chicken and corn burger days of Year 10 … and BBQ-flavoured corn chips. So long ago …