One Hundred Days by Alice Pung
High up in the housing commission tower, headstrong 16-year-old Karuna lives alone with her mother. Karuna feels suffocated by her mother’s strict rules and overbearing protectiveness – ‘a girl who makes one wrong move is wrecked for life’, her mother says. Karuna feels she has no control over her fate, so when she meets a uni student at a local tutoring program, she decides to make at least one choice for herself. Two months later, Karuna discovers she’s pregnant. And when her mother finds out, Karuna is confined to the flat, only allowed out with her mother’s approval.
One Hundred Days is a moving story of the deeply tangled push-pull relationships between mother and daughter. Karuna is a wonderful character: sardonic, believably rebellious and smart. And though Karuna’s mother can be unbearably cruel, the fears that harden her iron rigidity are gradually revealed to us. As a Chinese Filipina woman abandoned by her husband, she works two jobs and distrusts – perhaps with reason – that this country offers much in the way of hope to those teetering on the precipice of poverty. The two characters’ dynamic throws up a thorny forest of questions: how much can – or should – we protect those we love? How do you stake your independence in the snarled knot of inextricable family history?
It is extraordinary to think that this is Alice Pung’s debut novel for adults, when her previous books such as Unpolished Gem and Laurinda already feel like contemporary classics. This is another title that will be added to that category. Reading it, I was reminded how liltingly lovely Pung’s writing is; every word careful and considered. Her pinpoint precision in capturing the idiosyncrasies of people’s actions and motivations is paired with a richly woven understanding of human psychology. Its unvarnished honesty calls to mind classics such as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and there is almost something of the fairytale in this updated Rapunzel too – a deceptively simple plot under which bubbles the latent power of raw emotional need and complicated love.