Black Inc Books
Copy courtesy of the publisher
Lucy Lam has just received the first Equal Access scholarship to Laurinda, an exclusive girls school. Her parents are immigrants from Vietnam (although were born in China) and she comes from a very different background to the other students. Her father works long shifts in a factory and her mother sews clothes in the family garage. When she’s not at school or doing her homework, Lucy spends a lot of time helping her mother work or looking after The Lamb, her younger brother.
Laurinda is ruled by ‘the Cabinet’ – a trio of girls who not only control their classmates but also some of their teachers. Although Lucy sees through them she can’t help but also be fascinated by them and she finds herself increasingly drawn into their world when taken the mother of one of the Cabinet takes Lucy under her wing. Then the Cabinet themselves begin showing an interest in her and Lucy sees what it can be like when you’re a part of that, a part of them.
But all things come with a price and Lucy struggles to hold onto herself and her beliefs against the will and pressure of the Cabinet.
Alice Pung breathes fresh life into the Aussie YA world with her debut novel Laurinda a look at a student from a non-wealthy background being accepted into a very prestigious school. Along with several of her friends from her Catholic high school, Lucy Lam sits the scholarship exam for Laurinda but it isn’t that she’s the smartest girl to take the test. Laurinda is looking for more than that. They want someone they can shape, someone who will grow from the experience they have at the school and Lucy’s creative writing exercise is what clinches the scholarship offer. When she arrives at Laurinda to begin year 10, Lucy must undertake some remedial English catch up work and her tutor is Mrs Leslie, mother of Amber Leslie one of the three who make up the Cabinet.
I didn’t go to a private school – actually apart from the standard Catholic high schools like the one Lucy attends before Laurinda, there weren’t even any private schools in my area. But the thing about high school is that fundamentally no matter where you attend, there’s a lot of the experience that’s the same across the board. No matter where you go, there are ways that you’re struggling to fit in, especially when you’re new and clearly a bit different, like Lucy is. Because Lucy didn’t seem to desperately want the scholarship, unlike one of her friends who has been tutored since she was small, she seems almost removed from it. She’s able to sit back and observe Laurinda and those who populate it with an almost detached air. Her observations are expressed through the novel as letters addressed to someone named Linh, describing her experience both before she is accepted into Laurinda and also after as well as her struggles with what her role is to be there.
I always feel a bit awkward trying to assess how someone like Lucy must feel, attending her new school, commenting on a situation and culture that I know nothing about. I’m not an ethic minority and I’ve had relatively little experience understanding that. She doesn’t make mention of any other Asian students there and much is made of her past, the fact that they are immigrants who arrived on a boat, that they are quite obviously not well off. Lucy’s mother doesn’t speak English and spends a lot of the time working, contributing to the family. People constantly mistake her heritage – she’s at the 16th birthday of one of the Cabinet when one of the girls relatives, upon seeing Lucy remarks “I didn’t know our Amber had any Jap friends” and once she tries to explain to someone that although she and her family did come on a boat from Vietnam, they are actually not Vietnamese and her family had already left China to go to Vietnam during the Chinese famine. It clearly doesn’t compute. She seems to be taken on almost as a charity project at times, despite the fact that she doesn’t actually need any charity. When Brodie, one of the Cabinet comes to visit her unexpectedly at home, although she’s not ashamed of her family, Lucy can’t help but look around and see her home and family through the eyes of Brodie, seeing what she sees. Nevertheless she refuses to answer Brodie’s curious questions about what goes on in the garage as well as who the mysterious man was that turned up around the same time. Another time in the book, Lucy’s father wants her to invite her friends over to watch a movie on Vietnam but she knows they won’t be interested and so she doesn’t ask them. She can’t express to her father that they won’t be interested and it’s clear that he’s disappointed when she doesn’t invite them.
When the Cabinet court her, although Lucy has clearly been able to see through them and is appalled by some of their antics, it’s hard to go against the sway of being accepted, even if it all balances on tenterhooks. There are times when Lucy seems to enjoy being part of them, being included in that group but it doesn’t take long for her to see the ulterior motives. How they are cultivating Lucy and her friendship mostly for their own use and in ways that benefit then, attempting to tie her to them in gratitude. Lucy retreats and I was reminded of times when I was fighting with school friends, especially this one girl – I would always pretend to be sick and try and get a few days off school to put some distance between myself and her because she’d always forget about it and things would go back to normal – until the next time and the cycle would start again. At one stage Lucy doesn’t even want to go back to Laurinda but over the course of the holidays, she changes her mind and to her surprise, things seem to have changed. It reminded me how tenuous things in high school can be, how the shift of power can happen in an instant.
Although I didn’t attend a school like Laurinda, this book did take me straight back to my high school experience. It was both the best time of my life and the worst time of my life. I made some great friends in high school and had some great times. At the same time, I also learned a lot about whether or not people are genuine and how it can not always pay to put your trust in someone. This is set around the time when I went to high school so cyber bullying and social media don’t exist and when one girl pulls out a mobile phone, it’s an extreme novelty.
Laurinda is a very clever, funny portrayal of the school portion of life as well as gender and the role of friendship and power. Lucy is frank in her observations in her letters and yet at the same time, she can see herself changing, the more time she spends at Laurinda. She is adapting in some ways, to what they want her to be, forgetting her old life and her old friends – she recognises this and she wants to find her old self again, the one that stands up and questions things and doesn’t just go quietly, ignoring things when they happen. Lucy’s is a wonderful voice, full of life and she gives real vision to the life she leads and how Laurinda and the lives of the other students there, is very different to hers. My words for this book actually feel inadequate – I wish I had an eloquence as beautiful as Lucy’s piece in her scholarship paper to describe how wonderful I think this book is!
Book #217 of 2014
Laurinda is the 80th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014