Jamie Marina Lau
Throughout a childhood spent moving between different countries, one thing was constant for Leen. The local shopping centre. Within those complexes the familiar landscape of logos, the bright lights, the climate controlled environment and the interactions between workers and customers never changed. It all looked shiny, new and tidy – on the surface.
So, when it feels like the same day for far too long, Leen decides to open a healing studio – ear-cleaning, massage and cupping – for her, the Par Mars Topic Heights shopping complex is the perfect location to build a business. A place where you can smell summer even if it happens to be winter. Here, Leen thinks she is making connections. Just like in the ancient Chinese art of ear-cleaning taught to her by her mother, she thinks what you can’t see, you trust someone else to be able to. But what if you trust the wrong person? And what if that person is not looking to heal but to destroy?
With a fierce intellect and masterful storytelling, Jamie Marina Lau brings to life a world that is devastatingly close to our own. A world where consumerism drives us to buy things we don’t need, where otherness can be used to manipulate, where a person’s worth is measured by the role they play or the way they look and where protective services isn’t about protecting others from violence but viciously punishing those who step outside the lines.
Gunk Baby is inventive, confronting and unforgettable.
When I first picked up Jamie Marina Lau’s debut, Pink Mountain on Locust Island, back in 2019, I was instantly intrigued by the sparsely filled pages and short-prose structure. It was captivating; almost like reading poetry. Lau’s ability to weave a whole novel into only a few staccato sentences filled with emotive language and powerful adjectives made me fall in love with both the voice of her character and Lau herself as an author. I had never come across a book like it, distinct not only in subject matter but in its ability to ask the fundamental question, ‘what is a novel?’
So naturally when Gunk Baby was announced, I was not only excited to read Lau’s latest work but to again have my understanding of character, voice and form challenged. When I finally got my hands on the book after a year of waiting, I was surprised to see the format was that of any other novel and worried that Lau’s return to a conventional writing style indicated the loss of all that made her debut revolutionary.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Gunk Baby is a riveting story, told through the eyes of 24-year-old Leen, a young woman whose tumultuous past has left her with a fixation for shopping centres and their ubiquitous nature. Within one of these shopping centres Leen hopes to provide human connection and relief by opening a studio dedicated to healing, offering services such as massage, cupping and ear cleaning. However, Leen soon finds her ability to trust and connect with others challenged by the manipulation, pressure and consumerism inherent to her beloved shopping centre, and by extension, the world.
While this book does fit the traditional structure of a novel, Lau maintains her flowing prose and evocative language. Staying within the noir tradition of her previous book, Lau interweaves her characters’ mundane thoughts and wandering observations with harsh realities of violence and unresolved trauma. Gunk Baby is a beautifully unique novel which will be loved by both new and old fans of Lau’s work.
Izzy White is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.
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