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Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung

I was delighted to be be given the opportunity to review Her Father’s Daughter.
Alice Pung’s latest memoir is chock-a-block-full of powerful imagery; both rich and sparse. Her Father’s Daughter reads like a multi-layered love letter from a daughter to her father. Its four parts unwrap a father’s complicated and sometimes flawed protectiveness, while shining a light on the interconnecting strands of that most intricate of webs; the family.  At the same time, it casts a steely unflinching eye over Cambodia’s devastating history.

Alice Pung who won the ABI Newcomer of the Year Award in 2007 for Unpolished Gem, mesmerises in this second memoir with her stylish (but not overly-styled) prose.  With fabulous humour, Pung introduces us – in part one – to modern-day China with its robust marketplace-haggling, enigmatic Chinese guessing games and ‘two-thirds of the world’s cranes’ (as Alice’s guide proudly informs her). 

Pung describes mundane late-night traffic in such a way that lights on a highway become something akin to an exquisite necklace.  She can make you think about what tea-cup size says about a society.  Small cups don’t invite talkativeness:

You couldn’t tell a longwinded story about a visit to the supermarket while holding a Chinese cup with two fingers.  Its contents were two gulps.  The end.

Despite the occasional hint that there is much more beneath the surface, part one had me smiling my way through happy-go-lucky  pages of tourist-stops and ‘beautiful perfumed young women floating around the city‘, drastic hair-cuts and the considered love of Aunties and Uncles.   And then there is the agonised restraint of first love revisited.

Melbourne forms the back-drop for part two, four years before the China trip.  Alice feels uplifted by her pokey little University flat that represents solitude and freedom to her twenty-three year old eyes.  The ties to her family are still strong however, and she returns to the family home every weekend to don her blue Retravision shirt and work in the back office of her father’s store.

Into this story of a young woman’s search for independence from a loving family and an over-protective father, comes the devastation of the father’s struggles in his ‘other’ life.  ‘Cambodia: Year Zero’ is shocking and riveting.  Devastating.  There is some frightening imagery and my reviewer’s pencil was stunned into stillness.  Sometimes, the shock is in the sparsity of the descriptions.

While some survivors swapped stories, others – starving and exhausted – remained silent because ‘it took about seventy muscles in the face to mutter a single word, and they were exhausted’.

Here, her father’s friend describes one of many atrocities with a chilling economy of words:

 The bus, the man said.  It loaded us on, and then it took us to the top of a mountain and dumped us there.  The mountain was dotted with landmines.  At the top there was no food or water, so we went down and exploded and died.

Thankfully, Pung’s sense of humour – showcased wonderfully in her introduction to Growing up Asian in Australia when she tells of her initial response to the label ‘Power-Point’ – remains not too far from the surface, ready to drag the reader back from the brink of despair with a couple of perfectly chosen words or a stab of wry humour.

The clever menu pun on the Nixon/Kissinger bombing campaign ‘Operation Breakfast’ is – all at once –  macabre, funny, and macabrely funny.

Amidst the many violent deaths, there is also just Death; like the man who finally gave up after losing his whole family, when simply moving became hard work.  Then, even looking became too hard.  And, finally, breathing. ‘Breathing was the hardest task of all.  He decided that he just wasn’t up to it anymore.’

One of my favourite gems amongst the many to discover in Her Father’s Daughter is the chapter titled ‘The secret life of the senses’, with its ‘Life of hearing’ and ‘Life of Touch’ and so on, culminating in ‘Life of the Mind’ which allows survivors to mould people back to life ‘out of the wet clay of their recent memories’ so that painful chapters can somehow be skipped, history rearranged, deprivation and death banished.  It is in this chapter that Pung unearths one of those less-talked-of truths: often, it is easier for people who have witnessed extreme trauma together, to separate; to take divergent paths, because the submergence of painful memories is less demanding when there is no-one to share them with.  Over time, they might become less real.

Alice’s father is a delight with his notion of University as a ‘strangely perfect word’ because it contains the word universe, and in the way he tries to come to grips with a language that uses the term ‘tender submission’ for a business form.  Here is a man whose repressed memory sees him filing down the pointed end of a knife in order to protect his family from injuring themselves, a man who based his choice of car on the number of its airbags. 

Her Father’s Daughter is a powerful account of one woman’s attempt to understand her roots, and is perhaps best summed up in the prologue by Alice herself as she begins her quest:

She thought of her grandfather – her father’s father – dead of starvation, her two cousins buried alive, half her relatives wiped out, the whole of Cambodia reduced to one extended bony arm begging for a bowl of rice.  This was her heritage.

PUNG, Alice. Her Father’s Daughter. Black Inc. Collingwood, Aust. 2011
ISBN : 9781863955423
Source: Advance review copy courtesy of Black Inc
Availability, (from August 29th 2011):
Fishpond: Her Father’s Daughter

Alice Pung’s other works are:-

The above review was published at ANZ LitLovers on 14th August 2011.

Post Updated 16th August 2011


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