A tale of two memoirs

By chance I found myself reading two memoirs concurrently over the last week.  The first, Unpolished Gem was for my bookgroup and the second, The Lucy Family Alphabet was just a bit of fluff to read on nights when I was too tired to read anything else before going to sleep.

I must admit that I’m not completely sure of the difference between memoir and autobiography.  I think of a memoir as being a more consciously constructed thematic work than an autobiography.  A memoir mounts (perhaps a bit strong– suggests?)  an argument and the experiences written about are selected to support the overarching theme that the author/narrator has chosen.  There’s often a central motif that drives the work (gem, alphabets…)  I wouldn’t want to be held too strictly to the distinction between the two, though.


Alice Pung: Unpolished Gem, 2006, 280 p.

“This story does not begin on a boat. Nor does it contain any wild swans or falling leaves” announces the blurb on the back cover.  Well, thank heavens for that, say I.  The world certainly doesn’t need yet another Asian three-generation book written by a Westernized daughter.

Alice Pung was twenty-five when this book was published to great acclaim. It tells of growing up in Braybrook as the eldest daughter in a Chinese/Cambodian family who had arrived in Australia in the wake of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields.  Her father owns a nearby Retravision store and her mother is an outworker making jewellery which she sells to retail stores.  Her paternal grandmother lives with them, Alice has several younger sisters and brothers, and there are blood aunts and other nominal ‘aunties’ within the Vietnamese/Cambodian  community in which they live. Interwoven with her own chronology of primary school- secondary school- university there are flashbacks to her parents’ early experience in Australia.  She is very conscious of her status as eldest daughter in a family fighting hard to find their own place in a new society.  As a daughter, she is an ‘unpolished gem’ compared to the highly polished lustre given to eldest sons, and during her final year at high school she suffers a breakdown under the pressure of her own high educational expectations, the drudgery and imposition of looking after her younger siblings, and her own attempt to fit in with her Australian peers and yet remain the ‘good’ girl.

This was the second time that I have read this book.  I had been rather lukewarm about it when I read the first time,  just after it had been published, and I wouldn’t have chosen to re-read it except that it was a bookgroup selection.  I think that I appreciated her writing more the second time around. Her story is told with insight and humour, although I (again) found myself becoming increasingly annoyed at the italicized internal dialogue as she grew older.  Just as I did the first time, I  again thought that the epilogue was clunky and rather too mannered in an attempt to bring what is truly an unfinished memoir to a close, given that the author was only several years older than the self she was writing about in the closing pages.  And so…. to the other memoir.

The Lucy Family Alphabet by Judith Lucybook cover.

Judith Lucy: The Lucy Family Alphabet , 2009, 296 p.

I don’t really know why I picked this book up, given that I’m not particularly keen on the comedic persona that Judith Lucy has created.  I must admit that I find the exaggerated, world-weary drawl rather wearing, and the constant mining of her own life for material a little tedious and self-indulgent.  So to willingly subject myself to more seems rather perverse.  On the other hand, the chapters were short (most about 2-3 pages in length) and not particularly chronological, so that I could dip into it at will.

Like all good Alphabets, the book starts off with A…. for adoption, and the chaotic Xmas family dinner at which she learned that she was, in fact, adopted. Normally in a straight autobiography this bombshell would come near the end of the book but she plops it onto the reader in the opening pages, then shuttles back and forth around this revelation, letting the letters of the alphabet supposedly drive the narrative rather than chronology.  The alphabet structure is rather artificial- there are, for example, six letter ‘A’ stories- and although the stories seem random, the longer you stay with the book, the more layered her anecdotes become.  There is more of an ending than just reaching the letter ‘Z’.  And even though the narrative voice is just the same as that distinctive drawling voice you’re likely to hear on a comedy show on the ABC, there’s more than just a string of acerbic, pointed anecdotes.  At times it is poignant and yes- wise (even though Judith Lucy the comedian would probably snort at such a description).

Judith Lucy wrote her book at about the age of 40; Alice Pung would have been in her early twenties.  Can an author write a memoir in her twenties, I wonder? I tend to think maybe not.  Or, rather, even though it might lose its immediacy,  I think that perhaps it would be a better memoir left to marinate for a few decades more.

awwbadge_2013Two memoirs- two Australian women writers.  I must add it to the Challenge!

6 responses to “A tale of two memoirs

  1. I loved Alice Pung’s second memoir – it seemed more mature in attitude – but like you I had some misgivings about this first one, although I felt she had the makings of a good writer.

    In general usage, as I see it, the terms autobiography and memoir are used pretty loosely and somewhat interchangeably, but I think those who think about these things in a formal way suggest that autobiography is more formal and tends to be a whole of life thing (so you’d expect it from a person at the end of their career, near the end of their lives) whilst, as you surmise, memoir can be about a part of ones life (either a segment or taken from a specific point of view or both).

  2. I have troubles with the memoir/autobiography distinction too. I remember mostly enjoying Unpolished Gem when we read it way back when. I remember something particularly funny about the red/green man at crossings but don’t remember what it was now. I’ve been meaning to read Judith Lucy since this book came out- I think she has a second one. I find her very funny, and although her voice takes some getting used to, I think she’s fabulous. I must get to reading it sometime soon.

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