Her Father’s Daughter

Alice Pung

Her Father's Daughter
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Her Father’s Daughter

Alice Pung

At twenty-something, Alice is hungry for the milestones of young womanhood: leaving home, choosing a career, finding friendship and love on her own terms. But with each step she takes away from home, she feels the sharp tug of invisible threads: the love and worry of her Chinese-Cambodian parents, who want more than anything to keep her from harm. Her father fears for her safety to an extraordinary degree - but why? As she digs further into her father’s story, Alice embarks on a journey of painful discovery: of memories lost and found, of her own fears for the future, of history and how it echoes down the years. Set in Melbourne, China and Cambodia, Her Father’s Daughter captures a father-daughter relationship in a moving and astonishingly powerful way.

Review

pungTwo memoirs before the age of 30 might seem like an ambitious undertaking, but like her first book Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung’s latest is as much her family’s biography as her own. The first half chronicles Pung’s formative adult years and her relationship with her father, as her need for solitude and independence confront head-on his hopes for her ‘to live a life where she will not be harmed by anything more than the occasional paper-cut’. Chapters alternate between the point-of-view of father and daughter, with the entire book told in third person. It’s an unusual approach, but Pung carries it off with warmth, wit and compassion.

Her growing realisation as a young adult that her parents ‘were not like other parents’ sets the tone for the second half of the book, which focuses on her family’s ordeals in Cambodia under the rule of Pol Pot. This book should come with a warning label: don’t get too comfortable in the first half, with its funny family anecdotes and stories of hard-won domestic freedoms – because the second half is a punch in the guts. Pung describes in uncompromising detail the horrors her family experienced, horrors that her father has ever since shut away as ‘dismemories’.

Emotionally, it’s the most lopsided book I’ve ever read, and at first I was inclined to fault it for its structure. But Pung’s message is clear: despite her father’s attempts to disremember everything that happened, his history is brutal and inescapable. As the story unfolds his apparent eccentricities come to make perfect sense. As Pung writes, ‘the real miracle … was not that he had lived. The real miracle was that he could love.’

Marion Rankine is from Readings Carlton

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