Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review: Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung

In her debut memoir, Unpolished Gem, Alice Pung narrates the story of her family's settling in Australia. They arrive from Cambodia with nothing except the expectation of a new baby in a month's time. When the child is born, her father names her Alice because he thought Australia to be a wonderland. This is really the story of Alice, her mother, her grandmother and their assimilation into a culture so very different from their own.

Alice's mother and grandmother are still clinging to a lot of their Chinese heritage whereas Alice's only frame of reference is Australia. She recounts how difficult it is for her mother to acclimatize herself to the new country; learning English, conducting her jewelry business and just everyday life. Her grandmother seems to adapt more easily. Alice becomes the go- between to her mother and grandmother and this creates some tension at times. Alice feels like she is Chinese at home and Australian outside. Alice says the life of a Chinese woman is constantly, sighing, lying and dying and that she wants no part of it.Growing up amid two different cultures is not always easy.

Throughout the story, Alice was very attached to her grandmother and her story telling. Unfortunately, when her grandmother passed away, Alice lost her sense of youthful security and knowing exactly who she was while growing up and trying to find her proper place in the world. Alice felt that her grandmother had affirmed Alice's existence. During adolescence, Alice experienced a severe depression and extreme angst dealing with the realities of becoming a young woman. Her self esteem suffered as did her hopes for the future. How her parents thought she should conduct herself and their hopes for her were not quite the same as what Alice thought. This is normally the case between parents and children but when there are different cultural ideals, it is harder to deal with.

This is where the story began to lose some of my interest. The writing seemed more rambling to me. In the beginning, there were a lot of humorous accounts of everday life and some wonderful flashback moments of life before emigration; how her parents met, their engagement and how they, along with Alice's grandmother and aunt had walked through several countries before they finally emigrated to Australia. The differences between the cultures was extremely interesting and the characterizations were very well done. It was very easy to imagine Alice's mother and grandmother. The last quarter of the book was not quite so engaging. I think I would have liked to have seen more of the back story but it is essentially a book about blending into a new culture. Maybe Ms. Pung should consider a pre-quel because that would be an interesting story. Overall, it is still a good book, just not a great one. If you enjoy memoirs and cultural differences, you might like this one. 3***


  1. This books has so much promise - I love that the author was named Alice because her father thought Australia was a wonderland - it's too bad it loses steam part way through.

  2. I enjoyed the review. It reminds me of a novel I read once, it had a similar story line but took place in Seattle. I enjoyed the book quite a bit, but I can't recall the title.

  3. You know this sounds like an interesting premise but not sure it's one I'd really like to read.

  4. I am a fan of cultural stories and memoirs so this sounds like a really interesting read. I wonder if I will have the same reaction to the last half of the book.

  5. I have been doing reviews for almost a year now...and only started my blog in January. Let me tell you I SO appreciate someone who does a good review like this, Kaye! So many people sugar coat and shy away from anything even slightly negative or constructive criticism...good for you and it helps the reader to know if they want to buy/read the book! Way to go!


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