‘Here, you could not be mediocre, but you had to be well-balanced. Not too real, yet not too fake …’ Lucy Lam, second-generation daughter of Vietnamese migrant parents, living in the outer suburban fringes of Melbourne, receives a scholarship to the exclusive Laurinda Ladies College — a world away from her previous life. She finds herself in a world of privilege, where decoding the secret language and power relationships of the school is as important and as difficult as meeting the exacting standards expected of ‘Laurinda Ladies’.
Told in epistolary form, the novel puts notions of power, privilege, race and identity under a microscope. In doing so, it presents readers with both a crisp portrait, and a searing critique of contemporary multicultural Australia. The adolescent characters are beautifully evinced, and the world of the college exudes a sense of understated menace. Alice Pung avoids any hint of didacticism or ‘issues-based’ narrative, drawing the reader in through careful and measured storytelling. The end result is a novel that is often witty, very biting, and always engaging.
Several factors made Laurinda a standout book with all three judges – perhaps most notably the degree of craft and deftness with which Alice Pung has handled the issues of character. While many of the books on this year’s lists were populated with interesting, challenging and dynamic characters, the cast of Laurinda are perfect drivers for a plot that refuses to deal in binaries, but which rather sets about teasing apart and exploring the complexity of interpersonal relationships as they try to function within a tangle of often conflicting social and cultural values. The end result is a novel that is utterly engaging and believable, and which builds an extraordinary sense of empathy with its readers.