In her latest, highly-anticipated novel, Melbourne author Alice Pung examines a mother-daughter relationship that’s complicated by cultural history and class. Here, our reviewer Rain explains why One Hundred Days is such a brilliant read.
“Sixteen-year-old Karuna Kelly is imprisoned in the cramped flat she shares with her mother on the 14th floor of a Melbourne housing block. Karuna is pregnant, and her mum believes that being confined to the flat is for her own good, to keep her safe and out of further trouble.
This is the 1980s, and there’s no phone to spend hours scrolling on, no Netflix to binge, no internet to enable Karuna to hatch an escape plan with friends. In the tiny flat in which she shares a bed with her mum, Karuna has only an old collection of Whitman poems, a stack of Reader’s Digests, and some treasured memories of David Bowie in Labyrinth.
The story is written in the style of a letter to the baby, Karuna’s only friend and companion during her house arrest. As the baby grows and Karuna’s body changes, so does her understanding of her excessively controlling mother, and of herself.
I loved Grand Mar, Karuna’s mother, in all her suffocating, no-filter glory. And when I say ‘love’, I mean she is completely maddening, but she’s so perfectly created by the author. You can really see her – fussing about the flat at lightning speed – and hear her: ‘What’s the point of you doing nothing all day while I work to death? I don’t know what sins I’ve committed to be so cursed. You’ve cursed my life.’
Grand Mar is a limitless encyclopaedia of seemingly improvised superstitions (drinking Coke will make the baby black; having a pen in the bed will cause the baby to have a cleft lip) and bizarre alternatives to whatever the doctors are advising (boiled watermelon, anyone?). She’s aggressive and unrelenting, with a penchant for belittling insults. She’s exactly the kind of character you don’t want to be locked in a tiny, claustrophobic flat with. Especially if you’re 16, and she’s your mother.
Ultimately, this is a story of mother-daughter relationships, in all their messy complexity. It’s about the power of familial love, and the boundaries between protection and control. I wouldn’t call it an easy read, as there are some pretty painful and challenging scenes, but it’s tempered with just the right amount of humour to get you through. A beautifully written, memorable story.
One Hundred Days by Alice Pung (Black Inc) is out now