In One Hundred Days, Alice Pung has written her most complex work to date

Alice Pung. Picture: Courtney Brown

Alice Pung. Picture: Courtney Brown

  • One Hundred Days, by Alice Pung. Black Inc, $32.99.

Being a teenager, especially one from a culturally diverse background, can be tough. But imagine being a teenager whose father has left, forcing her and her mother to live off a meagre income in a one-bedroom flat, who is also pregnant and dealing with a volatile relationship with her sole parent.

This is the life of Karuna, the 16-year-old biracial girl at the centre of Alice Pung's latest novel, One Hundred Days. Stifled by her mother's overbearing, emotionally abusive behaviour, and unable to escape from her in the aftermath of her father leaving, Karuna is lonely, depressed and frustrated.

When she shows up at a neighbourhood community centre for a tutoring class, and meets an older man, she throws herself into the romance as a way of taking back some control in her life.

At the end of the summer, she is pregnant and no longer in touch with the father, but determined to keep her baby. What follows is a challenging nine months of continuous battle with her mother, who bemoans her circumstances, and is intent on raising the baby as Karuna's "sister" to save them from shame.

The title of the book refers to the cultural period of containment that Karuna's mother wants her to partake in, the tradition of new mothers remaining at home for 100 days after birth, eating certain foods and focusing on regaining their strength.

In many ways, this period becomes the ground for Karuna and her mother's cultural battle of wills, but through the tension and conflict arises a sense of understanding as they adjust to the new dynamics in their family.

Pung has written about cultural differences in her previous books, including memoir (Unpolished Gem and Her Father's Daughter) and fictions (Laurinda), but One Hundred Days is perhaps her most complex book to date.

This is not an "easy" read. The character of Karuna's mother is incredibly challenging - emotionally abusive, irrational, chaotic and aggressive. Karuna's own sense of inertia when it comes to her life and outcomes contrasts with this to create an overarching sense of helplessness.

But this discomfort is the vessel through which the reader gains an understanding of the genuine complexity of each woman's identity, and how they are a product of their circumstances. Karuna's mother is isolated in Australia, her life separated from her family and culture, and driven by her desire to raise her daughter right.

The arrival of her baby is the catalyst to Karuna's regaining of control, as a mother to her own daughter. Through her growth, we see her mother in a new light - as a vulnerable and frightened woman, afraid for her daughter and determined to protect her in the way she knows best.

One Hundred Days is a compelling novel, that challenges our understanding of mother-daughter relationships, and the complexities they hold.

This story The mother-daughter ties that bind first appeared on The Canberra Times.