Alice Pung, Laurinda

I only discovered a few days ago (when I saw the Reading While White review of the book) that Alice Pung’s Laurinda had been retitled Lucy and Linh in its American edition. My own copy of the book is the Black Inc/Penguin version that was available (in kindle form, at least) in the UK–as ever, I’m unsure whether this means it would have been eligible for the Carnegie award or not.

I’m not sure what to make of this title change, and to talk about my ambivalence I am going to have to give away certain plot elements (I don’t think most people who read this blog care about spoilers, but just in case: Spoiler Warning).

The novel is written in epistolatory form from Lucy Lam to someone named Linh. Lucy is a Vietnamese-Australian teenager of Teochew ancestry, and she has grown up in a working class suburb of Melbourne. She has been attending a local Catholic school, but wins a scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an old, exclusive private school. From the beginning, she’s a bit ambivalent about the scholarship, which she really did not expect to win–it may mean a better future, but it also means leaving her friends behind. Linh, we’re given to understand, is one of those friends.

It is probably clear from “we’re given to understand” that this isn’t really true. Towards the end of the book it is revealed that Lucy and Linh have been the same person all along; that the letters are a form of mediation between the two sides of our protagonist’s life.

Which is fine; the trick of allowing your readers to frame the narrative in a particular way and then undermining those assumptions at the end can be really effective–I’m thinking of books like Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, or Gene Kemp’s Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. An attentive reader who has read this sort of thing before and has some sense of what to look for may begin to suspect not very far into the book that there’s a reason we’ve got a much clearer sense of Lucy’s other friends than of Linh (who is seemingly her closest friend). But even for a pretty experienced reader of This Sort of Thing, Laurinda presents a bit of a challenge. An example, from early in the book. Lucy and her friends have come out of the scholarship exam, and are discussing the final essay question:

Suddenly, Tully turned towards you. “What did you write about, Linh?”
You just laughed. “Something stupid.”
[a page or two later]
For some reason, the picture in the exam paper had reminded me of my mother, so I’d written about her. If the other girls had asked, I would have told them. But somehow I did not want to share this with Tully.

“If the other girls had asked” is doing some good work here–allowing for both “the other girls in Lucy’s group,” and “the other girls, except Tully, with whom she does not want to share this.”

Moments like this are really cleverly done–at other points, it’s still not clear to me to what extent Lucy is imagining herself as separate from Linh; whether some of the difficulty in working it out is from inconsistency rather than skillful elision. But I think the concealment of Linh’s identity does add something to the book– and it’s something quite disconcerting. For much of the book Lucy is talking about the split in her life between her working class suburb and family, and Laurinda’s posh whiteness, and the level of performance that survival at the school entails. It’s all too easy to map this split onto Lucy and Linh, but then we’re left with the possibility that Lucy, with whom we’ve spent the duration of the book, is only half of the complete person we’ve let ourselves think we’re seeing; that we are part of the audience to whom she must perform. And you then go back through the book, wondering to what extent things are being framed to suit our expectations of the narrative (and you remind yourself that voices aren’t that neatly split across people, and whether it’s possible to write as Linh at all without some Lucy slipping in). I wonder to what extent the reframing caused by changing the title then changes this experience–if by giving Linh equal weight in the title, the reader is led to focus more on her role, and what that does to the book’s playing around with the reader’s assumptions. (I also don’t know if the book has been edited and/or changed in other ways for its American edition, so this speculation may be meaningless.)

But my other reservation about the changed title is a personal one–that it shifts the focus from the school.

I became interested in reading Laurinda because it was a school story. (Pause for regular readers of this blog to roll their eyes.) It’s a school story because it’s set in a school and is about a student’s experiences of that school, but I don’t know if Pung is a fan of the school story genre; Laurinda doesn’t obviously position itself in dialogue with that tradition (in the way that, say, Robin Stevens’s books do), but that needn’t mean she isn’t familiar with it.

Here are some tropes of the school story: the new student who comes to the school and has to familiarise herself with its structure and ethos; the scholarship student who, despite being poorer than the rest, shows herself to be as worthy as them and triumphs in the end; the bad prefects who are exposed so that things are put right. Intentional or not (perhaps some of these tropes are just inherent to the setting), Laurinda ends up negotiating exactly these situations, but in complex, and (if you’re already interested in school stories) fascinating ways. Arriving at the school, Lucy finds that her background has not made it that easy for her to prove her worth–there are things that are taught differently, or better, here than in her old school; there are cultural shibboleths that will continuously mark her as an outsider. More, her outsiderness itself will be weaponised in ways she hadn’t anticipated–by the well-meaning white woman who wants her for a protégée, the popular kids, and most importantly, by the institution itself. She learns that she is expected to perform her role as (poor, ethnic minority) scholarship student in ways that are sufficiently palatable to those around her as well as making the institution look good. The book’s big climatic moment is not the one where Lucy and Linh finally merge to tell the powerful girls of the Cabinet to fuck off, it’s later, when Lucy gives a speech that proves that she’s finally understood her place in this system, has understood how far she can go without being crushed by the institution; how to accept that she is being manipulated and to manipulate it right back.

Because throughout her year at the school, both in her interactions with the principal and with the Cabinet, Lucy has been receiving an education in power. The Cabinet, whose mastery over the student body means that they can hurt others for fun and escape any consequences (“Because Amber was crying so much, Gina could not” is one of the most succinct descriptions of a particular sort of power play as you’re ever likely to see), befriend Lucy because she makes them look better, discard her when she is insufficiently teachable, and attempt to co-opt her once more when she has learnt to play the game. But the Cabinet become negligible as Lucy begins to understand their role in the institution as a whole. In the traditional school story, morality emanates from the institution itself, and the head of the school is unfailingly good. It’s Mrs Grey, the principal, whom Lucy “finally [accords] the respect she was due,” and who is in a position to see that Lucy has become “this true Laurindan who now layered her words with care and cunning.” Mrs Grey and Lucy understand Laurinda (and the world of which it is a part) and are in that sense allies–but this isn’t a happy ending. The corrupt prefects (the Cabinet come as close to this as anything) will not be reformed, and Lucy will not triumph, because they are part of a system that is already working as it is intended to.

I was prepared to be disappointed by Laurinda because so many of its early scenes document the sort of racist microaggressions that are designed to make white readers go “oh wow I never thought of that before!” and move on; the sort of thing that already feels like a cliché (though now that I’ve come around to the book, I want to defend these moments by pointing out that its young adult readers may not have reached the point of thinking these clichéd yet). I’m glad that the book turned out to be so much more, that its depictions of power and its workings are this incisive and this ruthless. And I’m still going to read it as a school story.


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