Her Father’s Daughter

her-fathers-daughterHer Father’s Daughter was first published in 2011. It won a prize for best new non-fiction in 2012 and was short-listed for several others. It has now (2013) come out on Kindle, I think for the first time.

I was confused when I started reading this – it’s in the third person, and I assumed I was reading a work of fiction. But the protagonist is named Alice, just like the author, Alice Pung (website here, with a charming photo at the foot of the page) and like the author she’s a Sino-Khmer girl from Melbourne, the eldest child of parents who reached Australia as boat people in the 1980s. The prizes it won are for memoir. So it’s a memoir. All the same, a degree of conscious art is at work, often a very high degree – the narrative has been shaped by a literary sensibility.

Description from Amazon:

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.

The first half of the book deals with Alice growing up in Melbourne with her extraordinarily protective father. At an early age she realises that there is absolutely nothing he won’t do for her safety. Yet he’s not controlling, just fearful of the outside world. Not because that world is Australia, but simply because it’s outside. Around the midway point the tone of book changes completely as we discover why. Both he and Alice’s mother are survivors of the Khmer Rouge, the attempt of a bunch of utopians and teenagers to reset history to Year Zero. It’s a story that’s been told often enough, but there’s no denying that thanks to Alice Pung’s literary gifts this is one of the best. The book is worth reading for this section alone.