Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung


A story told with a captivating wit that draws the reader into her world, Unpolished Gem is a polished work of the storyteller’s art. A simple story about growing up the daughter of immigrant parents the author gives the reader more than just an insight into her cultural melting pot of a world. She puts you into her shoes, invites you to step into her mind and by the end of it, you feel like you are the one who has lived her rather interesting life.

When reading recreationally, it is not often that I come across a book in which I frequently catch myself laughing out loud. A story about a girl who just wants to “do the things that ordinary young people did, like falling in love without being under the spotlight of Indochinese (in)security cameras” it is charming, heartfelt and very witty all at once. Curiously, I bumped into Alice one Friday afternoon while waiting to meet someone for lunch. The next day, while catching up with some friends for lunch, I learned that she had written a book. After lunch on the following day, I decided to obtain a copy to read and, before lunch on Monday, I had read it. I knew Alice through the Amnesty International group at Melbourne University where she was my predecessor as president of the group. She was strong-willed, witty and intelligent and was a real inspiration to me during my early years at the group. After reading this book, I am beginning to understand why.

The book is very easy to read. It isn’t buttered up and padded out with flowery language. She tells it like it is, how she sees it, as it happens. Like many a master storyteller, she controls the pace and volume of the writing effortlessley and the reader can be forgiven for occasionally forgetting that they are reading a book. Much more than just words on a page, the scenes and characters jump out at you as you are immersed in the author’s world. There is possibly a danger here that someone who has not grown up in Melbourne (and did not happen to personally know the author) may not grasp the imagery in the kind of vivid detail that I clearly did. However, I doubt this would detract significantly from the experience of reading this book. After all, one does not have to come from Melbourne or be aquainted with the author to understand such delightful phrases as:”Foreign words did not seem to slip out of me as easily as the contents of my bladder”.

This is much more than just a documentary of growing up as the offspring of immigrant parents. Indeed, if information is all that was provided, I needn’t have read it being in a similar situation myself. Fundamentally, this is a very personal story about a girl growing up and discovering the world around her. The story actually begins prior to her birth and spends considerable time introducing the main supporting charaters, and telling their stories. Eventually, the book develops into a personal narrative centred around the star of show who happens to also be the author of the book. While I found the various stories to be very interesting, the real pleasure that I gained from reading this book came from the quirky insights and strange quotes found throughout the narrative. Quotes such as “having a white son in law could be good, more people kowtow to you, you know” punctuate the flowing narrative and force the reader to occasionally take a second take.

Though I was already very familiar with the world that the author introduces and describes, her book breathed new life and new perspective into it. In addition to these fresh insights to a strange world, the writing itself is a delight to read. Quirky, captivating and absolutely charming. I certainly hope that Alice continues to write many more stories for us to read and I do hope that this book is as much a success as it thoroughly deserves to be. Like a good photograph or video, this book captures the essence of life as girl growing up in Australia who happens to have Cambodian immigrants for parents. It gives us insight into not only the slightly unusual everyday happenings which decorate the landscape of her life, but also the quirky thoughts that lend perspective to it. An absolute joy to read. I couldn’t recommend it more.

2 Comments on Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung

  1. I read the two free articles that Alice has available in The Monthly. I enjoyed both very much. I’ve also read her book.

    Caveat Emptor
    Throwing the Book

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.