Heart, complexity, wit and intelligence make this so much more than an Australian ‘Mean Girls’.

 Who is it for:

The marketers probably call this young adult, but trust me, this book is for anyone who’s ever been to high school, anyone who’s in high school, and anyone about to start high school. In other words, anyone over the age of 12. Especially girls.

What the back cover says:

Part satire, part coming of age novel, Laurinda explores culture, class and conflict through an involving, original story that captures the minute dramas and searing pangs of school life today.

What I say:

‘Life is nothing but high school’ – Kurt Vonnegut.

It is with this quote that author, Alice Pung, begins the story of 15 year old, Lucy Lam, resident of the ‘povvo’ suburb of Stanley, daughter of Vietnamese boat people and the inaugural recipient of the equal access scholarship to the exclusive girls’ private school, Laurinda Ladies College.

Vonnegut’s right about high school. It’s like the Hotel California – you check out, but you never really leave. If you think I’m wrong, go to a school reunion and feel yourself slipping back into that old role of class clown/library nerd/school captain. It’s why high school is so important. So formative. Such a brilliant back-drop for a work of fiction.

True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country – that’s also one of Vonnegut’s and it is actually this quote with which Pung concerns herself.

Well-off, educated, entitled – the students of Laurinda are born to rule. And the rulers of these future rulers is a triumvirate of beautiful but dark-hearted girls known as ‘the cabinet’ – Amber, Brodie and Chelsea.

‘… these girls were like the disembodied clowns’ heads you find at carnivals, the onles with the open mouths. The game looked so easy but only when you played it did you realised that the heads were always turning from side to sides, reminding you, “No! You can’t win!”‘

Call it cultural tokenism, exploitation, or the desire to control, but ‘the cabinet’ takes Lucy under their wing – a position she finds awkward, then uncomfortable, then downright terrifying.

Lucy is trapped between her outward desire to fit-in, and her inner need to be true to herself – not easy when you are still figuring out who that ‘self’ is.

‘Nothing has a stronger hold over a girl than the fear of the thoughts of her peers  thoughts that change five times in a day. No wonder things are so complicated with teenagers.’

Ah – so true. This book reeks of authenticity. As the daughter of Cambodian refugees, Pung writes with humour and insight about what she knows concerning the refugee experience of life in Australia; the overt and covert racism, and how it feels to live between two cultures but not fit-in with either.

Pung has a beautiful way with metaphor and similie which bring life, vitality, humour and originality to the writing.

‘Where we lived was not a place where good stories began, but a place where bad stories retreated, like small mongrel dogs bitten by much larger, thoroughbred ones..’

The book is written as a letter to ‘Linh’ which lends a sense of intimacy and honesty to the prose – it is not until three quarters of the way through that the reader discovers who the mysterious ‘Linh’ is – and the disclosure supports both the themes and plot of the novel.

‘I knew even then that where I was going, you were not coming along, and that I would have to leave you and all of this behind. But I did not understand then, as I do now, how difficult it would be to create a thoroughbred from  mongrel stock.

I have three daughters. They’re too young for this book right now. But I’m going to buy the hard copy and save it for them to read as they enter high school.

It espouses so many terrific values – the importance of humility and family, and the idea that leadership is not about fear, but about empathy, self-awareness and standing up for what is just and fair. Best of all – this goodness is wrapped up in humorous and insightful writing. The kids won’t even know it’s good for them.

Yes – life is high school and high school is life. But it’s life with the volume turned-up. Schools are greenhouses of raging hormones, terrible insecurities, and rank competitiveness, all infested by this overarching, desperate desire to fit.

But as the fabulous Lucy Lam shows us, from the greenhouse comes the growth…

To download a sample chapter, click here .

Buy the kindle version here (only $4 AU) or the paper back from Penguin Books.




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