Review: May Ngoon Alice Pung

Precarious Fairy Tales

Fairy tales are a running motif in Alice Pung’s new novel, One Hundred Days. Fairy tales can operate on many levels — they can entertain children, warn of dangers, provide heroes or heroines who are able to overcome obstacles; for Jungian analysts, they can be an expression of the collective unconscious. Just as fairy tales can work on many levels, the references to them in One Hundred Days are also multi-layered, from the numerous invocations of the classic 80s modern fairy tale movie Labyrinth, to the plot itself, that draws on the story of Rapunzel, locked up in her tower.

Karuna is locked up by her mother in their flat after she gets pregnant at sixteen. While pregnant and confined, Karuna—the child of a white Australian father and a Chinese Filipino mother—begins writing down the story of her life in a secret diary, addressing her unborn child. Here, though, there is no fantasy:  

It would be nice if I could start off with a fairy tale, something that makes you think that the world is much bigger than us beneath our ceiling. But it’s just me and you and your Grand Mar and the dark…

Instead, it is real life in Melbourne in the eighties. Karuna lives in a housing commission flat with her struggling mother, has an absent father who has more or less abandoned them, and deals with the challenges of being mixed race. Here is a young woman trying to find her way in the world — actually, this could be a fairy tale. And like many fairy tales that are about coming of age, this novel also explores girlhood, but a girlhood that is indelibly formed by race and most of all — by class.

At the beginning of Karuna’s story, her father is a mechanic and her mother runs a beauty salon at home. When her parents divorce, Karuna’s world irreversibly changes, and she and her mother move to a cramped housing commission flat. She is taken out of a private Catholic girls’ school and put into the local state school.

Her mother, whom she refers to as ‘Grand Mar’ in her story to her unborn child, starts working two jobs— at a hairdresser during the day and at a Thai restaurant called Siamese  Please at night. She does not return home until late every evening: ‘“I’m so busy,” your Grand Mar is always railing, “so busy all the time that it feels like I’m rush-rushing towards death. When you have children, you’ll understand these things.”’

Unfortunately, Karuna will have to understand this much sooner than her mother anticipates. At sixteen, Karuna becomes pregnant to Ray, a nineteen-year-old after school homework tutor. With a few months to go before her due date, Karuna’s mother locks her in the flat for the next one hundred days in an attempt to protect her daughter during her pregnancy.

At the white-hot centre of this novel about girlhood is the fractured relationship between mother and daughter. Karuna’s mother is always present, hovering in the background of the novel, much as she does in Karuna’s life, but it is when Karuna becomes pregnant that their relationship moves to the foreground.

How we view our parents as children is often limited. We can’t always see or understand the challenges our parents encounter, especially when we’re also having to bear the brunt of their coping mechanisms and trauma, which in Karuna’s case includes enduring her mother’s controlling behaviour as well as her general meanness: ‘Because nothing that came out of her mouth was kind, because every word was seared on both sides with sarcasm.’

However, her mother is also a picture of survival and resilience. Coming to Australia to marry Karuna’s white Australian father, she meets him in person for the first time at the airport:

“When I arrived in Australia, I cried at the airport,” she told me. “He was so old! I hadn’t expected him to be so old.” Oh no, I thought. Now I’d be awake for at least another forty minutes. I knew this story well, because she had it on loop like a broken single-track cassette. She would begin by telling me that your Grand Par had tricked her, sent a photo of himself with darker hair.”

A lone migrant to Australia to marry a man she has never met, Karuna’s mother’s migrant experience is alien to both Karuna and her white father. Despite her big and brash personality, we get a sense of the loneliness Karuna’s mother must feel even when this is filtered through Karuna’s angry childhood perspective.

In a recent interview, Pung related that it is a tradition in some cultures to confine women during their pregnancy for their protection, and that her own mother (Pung is Teochew Cambodian) considered this when Pung was pregnant with her first child.

For Karuna, a second-generation migrant, it seems an incomprehensible practice and she chafes against it. Karuna is never explicitly told by her mother this is something that might have been done in the culture in which she is from. This is a good portrayal of the second-generation migrant experience of their parents—the confusion around the things that are done to us by them, that frequently come out as orders, where our migrant parents often don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to explain. In a sense this is also a picture of the tensions in the cultural differences between generations, crystallised through the experience of different mothering practices.

There is no doubt that from the outside Karuna’s mother seems abusive—not only does she ‘protect’ Karuna by keeping her locked in the flat when she goes out to work, she controls what she eats (because it can be bad for her pregnancy), won’t let her read (because it’s bad for her eyes), and keeps the money Karuna makes working part-time at the salon. Karuna’s mother displays an alarming sense of ownership over Karuna and her body. Whether it can be called abuse or not, Karuna experiences it as harmful and controlling. Worst of all for Karuna, her mother feels a claim over Karuna’s baby. She decides she will raise Karuna’s baby as her own, with the baby being told that Karuna is her sister. Indeed, Karuna begins writing her story for her daughter so that one day her baby will know the truth.

Here is a vulnerable, pregnant young woman at the mercy of her mother. But it is not the whole story. Her mother also cooks for her, cleans for her, works two jobs to support her, and locks her in the flat in the mistaken confidence that she is protecting Karuna. Karuna’s mother is neither an evil stepmother nor a fairy godmother. And so One Hundred Days explores the way abuse and love can co-exist. The characterisation of Karuna’s mother is nuanced, she is at times portrayed as hilarious, like to her salon customers, ‘your Grand Mar’s words could create cavities, the way she spread compliments like jam on toast, right up to the edges’ while at other times cruel, when someone compliments Karuna: ‘“Doesn’t matter,” said your Grand Mar, “she already been used. Tricked! Stupid, like her own mother.”’

In Tillie Olsen’s short story, ‘As I Stand Ironing’, a mother ruminates about her troubled eldest daughter, Emily, who is having difficulties at school. The school has requested that she come in to talk about it all but the mother refuses, seeing the futility of this: ‘Even if I came, what good would it do?’ she asks. It leads to the heartbreaking, even if clear-sighted, last paragraph of the story:

Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom—but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to believe—help make it so there is cause for her to believe that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

The mother in the Olsen short story is unlike the mother in One Hundred Days in that Karuna’s mother is determined Karuna will bloom, but believes that can only happen under her control and on her terms. Indeed, her overcontrolling behaviour is an anxious reaction driven by a fear of poverty, something which Karuna’s mother has experienced before and is fearful of returning to again. Karuna’s mother knows there is the potential to fall into the abyss of poverty at any moment:

The world is a dangerous place for children who are unloved, unwatched and uncared for. Children with no one to claim them. You were born into a world far away from the dirt poor Tsinoys of my old neighbourhood. Being poor can make a person wild. I just don’t want you to become wild. I don’t want our baby to either.

What both mothers have in common are their limited resources—not only financially, but energetically and emotionally; they are women with inadequate support themselves, exhausted and burdened— ‘No one has ever listened to me. What I say has always been unimportant,’ Karuna’s mother says. Mothers themselves are vulnerable; especially when motherhood and mothering are shaped by class.

And where is Karuna’s father in all this? After the divorce, her father is largely absent from her life. One of the only times he really shows up for her is at a party for the baby, where he turns up with ‘a slab of beer’ and his new girlfriend, a young Asian woman:

His eyes glitter: he’s proud of his tall daughter and his young girlfriend. I bet he is thinking we could almost be sisters, because that is what I am thinking. Lan dips out her tiny hand with pink nails, like a Shih tzu offering her paw. I don’t take it.

Pung has a knack for writing the voices of young women, as she has demonstrated in her earlier books, Laurinda and the Marly series. One Hundred Days is written in first person from Karuna’s point of view. This brings an immediacy and a clarity to the characterisation of Karuna; she is funny, self-deprecating, and smart. We follow her as she discovers desire for the first time: when she watches the movie Labyrinth, she is captivated by the mix of seduction and danger that is the Goblin King played by David Bowie, ‘Everything I felt that summer of my fourteenth year suddenly had a gravitational pull, and he was it—the molten centre.’

The book is a compelling portrayal of the teetering movement from girl to woman, where Karuna experiences both desiring and being desired for the first time; both the promise and the threat that is inherent in desire (as embodied by the Goblin King), especially for young women. For young women too, being desired is predicated on external appearances, and as a mixed-race young woman this is exacerbated for Karuna; she is simultaneously praised for her light skin and double-eyelids, and criticised when she gets freckles and grows too tall. Karuna struggles with the challenges of being mixed race—from both the racist and racial fetishization that she witnesses from her own father, to being rejected by her mother’s parents because she is the product of a ‘White Ghost’.

But, just like her mother, it is class that most of all affects the way that Karuna sees herself and her future. When she gets pregnant, she decides not to tell Ray because she believes he has a future that would be ruined by a teenage pregnancy—he is an aspiring medical student. While she chooses to keep the baby, this choice is also affected by her own sense of self-worth, ‘The truth was, if I’d had a reason, a more exciting life, if I had been a whizz at school and had a brilliant future ahead of me, I might have given the baby up.’

It is refreshing to read a book that unabashedly depicts class and how it is lived through the experience of race and gender. Simple verbs and concrete nouns proliferate, indicative of Karuna’s teenage voice. Such language also reflects the aspiration to put Karuna’s suburban world onto the page in a direct and sensorial way; this is a world, after all, that is formed both by material conditions and a certain kind of adolescent longing:

These are the streets that Ray and I cruised down. How dumb I was then to have thought it was freedom, what we had. Just because I was moving fast didn’t mean I was moving away. He always, always drove in circles, and the larger they were, the more I believed we were going somewhere, but of course he always deposited me back here.

And this is one of the most striking things about the novel — that it brings a dynamic often neglected by writers in contemporary fiction: the fact that, in Anne Boyer’s words,  ‘in order to live, the vast majority of people have to sell the hours of their lives at work.’ This daily effort of economic survival in modern society defines the world that Karuna—and most people—live in. In One Hundred Days, we see this in the relentless working hours of Karuna’s mother in her two jobs, and in Karuna’s view of her own possible future.

Fiction can overemphasise interiority, sometimes at the exclusion of the other realities that mark our lives. It makes sense in that the background of most writers—those who get to become writers—often come from a comfortable socio-economic class, and so have very little experience of this ‘basic material fact’ of economic survival in their own lives. I think this can often lend a sort of weightlessness to their writing, as if unpinned from any material reality. As Boyer states:

I sometimes imagine some alien reader picking up a contemporary novel and thinking that everything about our species in our time and place was feelings, self-identification, self-interest, self-fulfilment, self-determination…

Pung’s novel doesn’t lack interiority. We are given a direct account of how Karuna feels and thinks about things happening in her life. But her interiority is affected by her material reality, by a world where the majority survive by ‘hour selling’, and the ways in which this weighs on people’s lives and their psyches. Karuna’s reality is marked by both precariousness and a resilience to that precarity; if she has agency, it is always constrained.

As in fairy tales, the novel does not hold back on the many obstacles and difficulties that beset its main characters. Despite this, the tone of the book is never dark. It is even at times funny, like when Karuna’s mother comments of one of her white salon customers: ‘A face like a leftover plate of fried rice. They always have worse skin than us. It might be whiter but it crumples faster.’

One Hundred Days is essentially a hopeful book. After Karuna has given birth to her baby, she meets Ray again at the end of the novel:

He may have a special life all set out for him, but now so do I. There’s been a hit song this year, a bouncy tune about being guilty of love in the first degree. I did fall in love. Just not with Ray.

What others might see as her downfall—being a teenage mother—is actually what lifts her up. She experiences renewal in the form of her baby, a chance for her to learn to love differently from how she was loved by her own parents. New life is always hopeful.

Is the novel too hopeful? Does it not register the possibilities of life-long scars, of traumatised childhoods that linger on into adulthood, passing them onto our children; of mothering like we ourselves have been mothered?

By the end of the novel, Karuna is able to go back to school, while her mother takes care of her baby during the day. Karuna and her mother reach a reconciliation of sorts; Karuna is confident that her mother can be persuaded not to claim the baby as her own when she gets older. In its essentially optimistic ending, One Hundred Days perhaps more resembles a YA novel, even though it has been marketed by the publishers as Pung’s first adult novel.

Pung has written a modern fairy tale for and about those who live in housing commission flats, for those who don’t feel they are worth anything, those who feel like they don’t count. Indeed, they often don’t count—they are not very visible in literature, in films, in culture. In this sense, I think the reader who would get the most out of it are young adults like Karuna, who will be able to see themselves on the page.

But even novels for adults, like fairy tales, can operate on multiple levels; they can explore the human experience, they can entertain, and maybe sometimes, also reassure us and comfort us: in a word, to give us hope. Hope in the sense that we can work with whatever is given us, however imperfectly. Perhaps that is the meaning of resilience.

I recognise some of the world that is described in One Hundred Days from my own childhood. I have my own migrant mother, and of course not all migrant mothers are the same, just like not all mothers are the same. But I laughed out loud in bittersweet recognition at this paragraph, one that that perhaps best characterises the simultaneous care and criticism that we can sometimes receive from our mothers—mothers who may be complicated, who may be struggling, mothers who are sometimes just surviving:

She was swinging a bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken above my head when I opened my eyes. “Put on the rice cooker,” she said. Fried chicken was a special treat, and we always had to have it with rice, because your Grand Mar wanted me to fill up on more rice than chicken. “Chicken makes you fat,” she said. “Just like those Australians who eat it from the bucket, in front of the television.”