Her father’s daughter (2011) is Alice Pung‘s second memoir – if you can quite call this book a memoir. Unpolished gem (2006), her first, established Pung in the eyes of both critics and readers as a writer to watch. I agreed with them, but with some minor reservations. She certainly demonstrated the ability to write and tell stories – plenty well enough for me to be happy to read more of her – but, it was a young person’s memoir about a family that had experienced things (such as the Pol Pot regime) that most of us couldn’t imagine. And Pung, born in Australia, didn’t seem to quite have the maturity then to fully appreciate this fact in the way she wrote of her family. Five years, though, have made the difference and I would happily apply my favourite Marion Halligan quote to this book:
Read a wise book, and lay its balm on your soul.
Because, this book is the whole package.
The first thing that stands out is the voice. The book is, in a way, a hybrid, a memoir-cum-biography, and Pung has chosen to write it in third person. This decision reminded me of Kate Holden’s The romantic: Italian nights and days in which she too chose third person to tell her story. But, these are very different stories, and the reason for using third person reflects the difference rather than suggesting a similarity. The difference is that this is not just Alice’s story as Unpolished gem was, but also her father’s story. It is Alice’s attempt to understand the things that clearly frustrated her in Unpolished gem, such as the over-protectiveness of her parents. In this book, her father has a voice. In fact, the book’s chapters see-saw between those labelled “Father” and “Daughter”, so that it reads almost like a conversation.
This conversation style is one part of the narrative structure. Another is the movement in geographic setting from Alice’s time in China, to her return to Melbourne, to her father’s life in Cambodia and then her much later visit to Cambodia with her father, and finally back in Melbourne again. This geographic movement is overlaid with the third significant aspect of the structure, its chronology. The book moves back in time from the present, from when Pung’s family is well-established in Australia with a successful business, with, that is, the life Pung wrote about in her first memoir. At the beginning of this book, Pung, in her late 20s, goes overseas for the first time and her father, as is his wont, is fearful:
It panics him whenever any of his children are far away.
He can’t understand why she must go away to write. After all, she can see these other places on Google Maps, so
why couldn’t she just see the world through these satellite pictures. It was safer.
Alice, being Australian-born, doesn’t understand the full extent of his fears but, as she writes the book, she learns why her father believes that
To live a happy life … you need a healthy short-term memory, a slate that can be wiped clean every morning.
We’ve all read and/or seen about the killing fields of Cambodia so I’m not going to detail here her father’s story of survival through one of the world’s terrible genocides. I will say, though, that for someone looking from the outside (me, the reader), Pung seems to have captured her father’s story authentically and conveys it in a way that we can understand why he expresses his love for his family in the fearful and sometimes controlling way he does. The result is a greater understanding from daughter to father, and, if Pung has got it right, from father to daughter too.
There are some lovely touches in the book about the business of writing memoir. Pung refers briefly to her parents’ reactions to Unpolished gem. Her father is proud but says that if he’d seen it pre-publication “there would have been parts we wouldn’t have let her include”. Pung continues:
She waited for more reproaches, even excoriation. It seemed impossible that this would be the extent of it, but it was. She started to see her mother and father in a new light. They had a sense of humour! They knew their private lives were completely separate from the world their daughter had described in another language.
Then, on different tack, comes this one, late in the book, on the writing of Her father’s daughter:
‘Do you think [says her dad] there’s too much suffering in the Cambodian part? Maybe white people don’t want to read about too much suffering. It depresses them.’
Ouch! There are a few ways to think about this one. Anyhow, Pung’s reaction is:
She didn’t know what to say about that. She knew exactly what he meant though. Her first book had been filled with the sort of sardonic wit that came easily to a person whose sole purpose in life was to finish university and find her first graduate position, knowing she was well on the way to becoming comfortably middle-class …
She decides that the time has come to look back and confront this part of her/their identity that her father had wanted to hide but that had heavily affected his parenting … In fact, it was around this point that I started to realise that my uncertainty about Unpolished gem might be more due to her father’s desire for “dismemory”, that is, to deliberately forget, than to her youthfulness. And the astonishing thing is, through all the description of people who did unimaginable things to other people, of people who suffered horrendously, of people who’d “lost their minds and did not bother to retrieve them”, the overriding emotion she conveys is that of love:
There’s no vocabulary
For love within a family, love that’s lived in
But not looked at …
(Epilogue, quoted from TS Eliot‘s “The elder statesman”)
Her father’s daughter
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2011
(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)