The air is palpable with words.
It is book group night and the participants of B.A.B.E.S are in good form.
We’re meeting for the first time at the newly renovated home of one of our members.
It’s cold out.
A toasty fire is beckoning us to gather around the radiant timbers.
The ‘bubbles’ are chilled – the flutes lined up in precise military lines ready to obey the ‘fill-me-up’ command.
Foods designed to tempt even the most diet-resilient, lay enticingly spread before us.
Our regular solving of issues big and small is only given a fleeting opportunity because we all want the discussion to begin. Her Father’s Daughter by Alice Pung has had an impact on us all.
Not unlike The Joy Luck Club and Wild Swans, this memoir unravels the generational story of a family to reveal a shocking epoch in history, one that we have lived through, but if you’re like me, was dismayingly unaware of at the time.
The book commences with the protagonist’s search for the family history of her Chinese Cambodian parents. Firstly set in China, links to grandparents are sought by this first generation Australian born.
In addition to this, the plot reveals a father’s concern for his daughter’s welfare in regards to her safety, her career, her future. Is he being overly protective in a natural fatherly way, or is there something else causing these philosophical differences in regard to contemporary life styles?
The setting then shifts to Melbourne and draws the reader into a sense of empathy about familial relationships and creates an expectation that the remainder of the story will show some resolution to this age-old dilemma.
The plot, to this point does not prepare you for the following installment.
I love an unexpected twist in a book, but I was not expecting to be ‘gutted’ by what I read next.
It is only as we learn about the horrendous experience the family has endured in their home country of Cambodia that the banality of what we, in contemporary Australia, regard as important in our day to day life, becomes evident.
Alice Pung’s language in this book is uncluttered yet masterful.
Rather than retell the story (you should all read this book), I’m going to share quotes that I found poignant.
Observations about life differences in Australia and China:
The next time her father calls, he tells her about the bushfires raging through Victoria’s summer, while she is in the middle of a frozen Beijing winter. The fires are reported in the China Daily, but not on the front page because of the everyday man-made horrors constantly happening here. Mines are collapsing, schools are tumbling down, trapping only-children inside. Milk for babies is poisoned, killing more only-children. p16
Children…are climbing on top of what look to be rubbish mounds. She watches this, surprisingly, without any smear of sadness. She has seen more miserable children howling in toy stores in Australia. These kids in Jieyang probably know the limits of their unfulfilled wants. They can see the corners of their universe, even though they have probably known for a while that the earth is not a flat square block and that heaven is not a circle floating above them. p23
Observations about her parents:
Their main priority in life was to be left alone. p178
From the moment he arrived in this country with one empty suitcase, he was bent on filling it up, like Mary Poppins’ infinity bag. p184
Her father handed her the mobile. It was strange, having her loud mother condensed into this little block of vibrating metal and plastic, just as loud if not louder because you had to put the phone up to your ear. p207
Observations about love and marriage:
When he said I love you, he meant it with absolute conviction at that moment. It was a feeling that swelled and needed release. p52
She had read somewhere that marriage was not a passion-fest, that it was more like a small partnership formed to run a tiny, quite mundane and often not-for-profit business. p180
When Kuan saw his fiancee Sokim again, he didn’t make love to her. They sat up all night making melancholy. He couldn’t even look at her face, so he spent the night staring at her left temple, staring at the blue-vein tree there. p396
Observation on Cambodia and her Father’s experiences:
She felt that this country was something precious – as brutal, as split open as a pomegranate, with hot breath and a million red and buried eyes. A country she would never understand, but that had shaped her father and made him who he was. The real miracle in this, she realized as she watched him standing there in the heat holding a straw hat to his head, was not that he had lived. The real miracle was that he could love. p487
My Father’s Daughter is compelling reading.
Make this the next book you pick.