October 8

Memoirs – Unpolished Gem

untitledOne of the great values of ‘reading’ an audiobook occurs when there is a distinct accent that knits the story together. This is certainly the case for Unpolished Gem, which I have been enjoying recently on my way to work.

The story is the memoir of Alice Pung’s immigrant family – their heritage including past lives in Vietnam and in Cambodia under the regime of Pol Pot. Alice, now a successful writer and lawyer, recounts her impressions of life as a child living across two very different cultures in suburban Melbourne.

Her family arrives in Australia and is in awe of all it has to offer – so different from their homeland experiences, and indeed, so different from the current migrant experience. For them, the suburban streets, shops and government support systems provide so much. In fact, every day her grandmother blesses ‘Father Government’ for giving old people money.

As refugees from the Pol Pot regime, her parents have great expectations of their new homeland, not the least of which is the value of education for their family. The family works hard – her mother as an outworker, while her father eventually becomes a ‘business entreprenuer’ embracing the miracle of franchising.

Naturally, though they embrace the Aussie dream, theirs is tempered by many strong cultural ideals. Insights into the Chinese culture are given with snippets of family conversations revealing their thoughts on how things should be done, must be done, as Alice struggles at times to bridge both cultures.

Listening to Unpolished Gem was fun – to hear Chinese expression, and the repetition and patterns of stilted Chinglish. The frustrations and struggles of Alice’s childhood also feel very authentic in the audio version, as her voice switches from recounts of the things she needed to learn, and things she needed to help her parents (particularly her mother) understand. Pung also loves language and Unpolished Gem is full of quirky sayings, and vivid playful language, so also dipping into the physical book was immensely satisfying.

Published in 2006, Unpolished Gem received much acclaim, and I imagine it would be an interesting contrast to the refugee experience of today. With the authentic insights it gives of a cross-cultural childhood, it is an unforgettable story with moments of tenderness, humour and bittersweet struggles well worth revisiting.

In an interview Writers Talk, Pung reflects on her family, inspiration for writing the book and the migrant experience:

A great book for concepts of belonging, cultural identity or journeys. Or simply a great read!

August 8

Homeless – Friday Brown by Vicki Wakefield

friday brownShe had escaped from home – and why not? After all, everything she ever knew was meaningless now her mother was gone. So she was running –  “trying to escape memories of her mother and the family curse.”

After spending all her years in the countryside, Friday Brown ends up homeless in the city. While she was with her mother, wherever the two of them were together – that was home. But now alone, she determined to find herself a place to be.

Through a series of events at a railway station, she develops a friendship with a strange and silent young boy. With Silence, she then comes under the wing of Arden, who along with the smouldering Malik, leads a small band of homeless kids with a Dickensian lifestyle in inner Sydney.

Belonging has always been hard for Friday. With her mother, she would traipse around the countryside – moving on when things became too stressful or demanding. From an early age, she knew the signs of an impending move – when the money ran out, or her mother was out of favour with her current employer.

After her mother’s death (presumably due to her family curse) Friday decides to run. But why is she really running away? Is life going to be any better, homeless, in the city?

Slowly, Friday adjusts to a chaotic life, with some unusual ‘housemates’ – but she is never quite comfortable with everyone, or with life in the city. Technically, they are homeless, squatting in an abandoned building till disaster strikes.

Change takes the dischordant group to the countryside, where Friday’s past gives her the strength and courage to take a stand and, occasionally, to take the lead. Relationships are tried and tested, and all in Arden’s ‘family’ discover different things about themselves and others. Instinct and cunning – are they enough to help Friday survive? Who is friend and who is foe? And what about her family curse?

Some surprising and tragic events throughout.

Selected for CBCA awards this year – it would definitely be one of my choices! What do you think?

For more reviews, see Inside a Dog or GoodReads

October 15

Differences – the Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket

Suspend all beliefs to go with the flow of this adventurous tale of Barnaby Brocket, written by John Boyne, author of ‘the Boy in Striped Pyjamas’.

Barnaby is the son of Eleanor and Alistair Brocket whose main aim in life is to be ‘normal’ and not stand out in any way. Before Barnaby was born, life was good and ‘normal’.

However, giving birth to a child who defies the law of gravity alarms the Brockets, and they spend their time hiding him away and using bizarre methods to keep him ‘grounded’. Mattresses are nailed to the ceiling, for meals he is tied to a chair, and for a walk in the park he is on a lead. Not that his parents really care for him – they seem to blame him for his floating condition, as if he could control it if he really wanted to.

When doctors can provide no answers, and Barnaby needs to go to school, the normal options aren’t available to him for his parents fear he would bring shame or notoriety to the Brocket family. Thus his schooling option is ‘the Graveling Academy for Unwanted Children’ – until disaster strikes. Barnaby is almost sacrificed with the rickety old buildings of the ‘Academy’ but for his plucky (and only) friend, Liam McGonagall.

With this turn of events, Eleanor Brocket reluctantly gives in and enrols Barnaby in a local primary school where things seem to settle down, and the mechanics of keeping Barnaby from floating in public seem to work. However, while on a school excursion climbing the Harbour Bridge, Barnaby comes to notoriety when he is counted as the ten millionth person to climb the bridge! Again this flies in the face of Eleanor and Alistair’s wish for anonomity in a ‘normal’ life – and again Barnaby is held responsible.

When Eleanor does the ‘terrible thing’, Barnaby begins an adventure of a lifetime where he meets with a number of people around the world. Most are happily successful or content with their differences.  As stated by one of the characters, ‘Just because your version of normal isn’t the same as someone else’s version doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you’ – a thought which echoes throughout this whimsical tale, without lecturing the reader.

Boyne’s story is accompanied by the quirky but clever illustrations of Oliver Jeffers, including the postcards Barnaby sends to his family as he attempts to make his way home to Sydney. It’s an enjoyable but not too demanding read – though it probably doesn’t match the impact of ‘the Boy with Striped Pyjamas’. What do you think?

 

 

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