Fernanda Dahlstrom reviews One Hundred Days by Alice Pung
One Hundred Days
Reviewed by FERNANDA DAHLSTROM
Alice Pung’s fifth book and second novel, One Hundred Days (Black Inc, 2021), deals with the difficult relationship between sixteen-year-old Karuna and her manipulative and overbearing (but also loving and hardworking) Chinese Filapino mother. Karuna’s father, who is Anglo Australian, has left the family and she has fallen pregnant to a boy she knew only briefly. The setting is 1980s Melbourne. Information is not readily accessible and hysteria about AIDS is rife. Pung tells a simple story that is rich and layered, exploring with compassion both the dysfunction and the strength of a complex mother-daughter relationship and ultimately empowering and vindicating the teenage protagonist.
The novel begins with Karuna addressing her unborn baby as she lies in bed beside her mother who ‘says she can’t sleep by herself, that it’s too dark’ (p.1). The claustrophobia is palpable and Karuna wishes she
could start off with a fairytale (sic), something that makes you think the world is much bigger than us beneath our ceiling. But it’s just me and you and your Grand Mar…there is no big bad wolf, even though your Grand Mar wants to wring his name out of me (p.1-2).
We soon learn than the Grand Mar in question plans to treat the baby as her own and to raise her believing that Karuna is her sister. The older woman’s looseness with the truth becomes clear and Karuna’s frank and intimate narrative is a pushback against her mother’s attempts to rewrite her story.
Karuna’s mother decides to confine her daughter to their housing commission flat for one hundred days to keep her safe. We then learn that Karuna met a medical student during the summer before Year 11 and got him to take her on long drives through the western suburbs, before having sex with him in the back of his car. The second person point of view is mostly limited to referring to Karuna’s parents as ‘your Grand Mar’ and ‘your Grand Par’ in an unobtrusive reminder of whom the story is being told to. Karuna’s mother works for a hair and makeup salon during the day and cooks at a restaurant in the evening. Karuna likes to read but cannot think of anything more pointless than studying literature at university and has no professional ambitions. When she finds that she is pregnant, she thinks that at least she’ll have something of her own.
All too often, mothers are romanticised, even fetishized, as selfless, wise and endlessly emotionally giving. Their sometimes-questionable behaviour towards their teenage daughters is a subject often spoken of with a platitudinous whitewashing that belittles or erases the experiences of daughters who have been subjected to true abuse. In contrast, One Hundred Days thoroughly interrogates the mother’s abuses of power and misconceived overprotectiveness of Karuna. She complains, ‘Aussie(s) think everything is child abuse’ (p. 12) and uses her culture to excuse her controlling and eccentric behaviour towards her more educated daughter. This extends to making Karuna boil watermelon, forbidding her to eat crab in case the baby is born with six fingers and warning her not to use glue as it will cause the baby to be born with birthmarks. Karuna eventually suspects ‘she is just making it up as she goes along, this cultural stuff’ (p.227), highlighting the disconnect between migrant parents and their Australian-born children.
Pung deftly captures the difficulty for a teenage girl of conveying to outsiders the wrongness of her relationship with her mother when, on the surface, it does not appear abusive. ‘Your mother’s just making sure you get plenty of rest’ (p.108), a teacher tells Karuna, when she tries desperately to tell the woman about her confinement in the flat. After her baby has been born, she ponders, ‘She doesn’t hit me, she doesn’t hurt us – how would authorities see what is wrong with our situation?’ (p.101) Pung also captures the ambivalence of a child who is mistreated by a parent and the half-awareness about one’s rights that can exist in this space. Karuna is at once outraged at the disrespect she receives from her mother and quick to protect the woman from consequences and from the judgements of others. When emergency services suggest sending out police after her mother locks her and the baby inside the flat on the hottest day of the year, she panics. When at last she succeeds in winning some autonomy and space, she is quick to reflect on how her mother has worked overtime for weeks, rocked the baby to sleep and got her everything she owns that’s not donated. Their relationship, at last, starts to resolve into one of mutual respect.
As someone from a single parent background, I found it refreshing that One Hundred Days does not play into some of the common tropes of narratives of single motherhood, where characters often yearn to connect with an absent father. Karuna gives the baby’s father only the most fleeting importance. Her own father’s absence from her life is also largely peripheral to the story, with the focus kept squarely on the relationship between the women. When she loses her virginity to nineteen-year-old Ray, the conquest is hers, but it is primarily a victory over her mother’s stifling control; the boy a means to an end.
If I hadn’t been in his car, I would have wanted to raise a triumphant fist in the air. Woohoo!…It didn’t make me a woman, but it did make me a separate person with secrets. (p. 56)
Ray is cast as harmlessly buffoonish. He asks if The Handmaid’s Tale is some kind of fairy tale and tries to work out Karuna’s ethnicity from her name, with an arrogance for which she gently mocks him.
Fairy tales pervade Pung’s novel, with Karuna’s confinement in the apartment tower calling to mind the story of Rapunzel. She repeatedly recalls the 1986 Jim Henson film Labyrinth as she tries to find her way through the maze of her relationship with her increasingly paranoid and delusional mother who has ‘stolen’ her baby, and to escape the prison she has made of their flat. However, Karuna’s relationship with her mother is too complex to reduce to fairy tale archetypes. Ray is eventually relegated to ‘the Once that started this Upon a Time’ (p.239).
One Hundred Days contains echoes of Caroline Baum’s Only: A Singular Memoir (2017), in its exploration of the claustrophobia of life as an only child and the over-identification with parents that this can bring. Karuna’s situation is also reminiscent of Margo Lanagan’s The Best Thing (1995) but in Pung’s world it is the middle-aged grandmother, rather than the teenage mother, on whom it is incumbent to make concessions so that the pair can move on to the next stage of their lives. The novel engages with issues of race and class while dealing primarily with a relationship that teeters on the edge of family violence. Karuna is ultimately delivered in her struggle for recognition and autonomy, while the hardships faced by her mother are acknowledged, in an uplifting validation of both women.
FERNANDA DAHLSTROM is a writer, editor and lawyer who lives in Brisbane. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Art Guide.