On John Marsden by Alice Pung – book review

On John Marsden, by Alice Pung is the second book in Black Inc.’s Writers on Writers series, published in association with La Trobe University Press. In the series, prominent writers share their intimate reflections on the work of Australian authors who have inspired them. In doing so, they begin new conversations about writing and culture, the legacy of Australian writers, and gratitude for the work of their peers.

Pung writes On John Marsden in first person, addressing the author. The book’s paper cover is pink and smooth, reminding me of an envelope. The book could be a hand-delivered note, and it is in a way. On John Marsden is Pung’s letter to John. The gorgeous little hard-back feels light in my hands. I can tuck it into my handbag, and pull it out to read in one sitting, which I do, twice.

First, I read it whilst lying on my living room couch, among my books. I learn that Pung is the Australian daughter of Chinese-Cambodian refugees. She is a leading memoirist and writer of young adult Australian fiction. Pung grew up in Victoria the eighties and nineties. The reality of many of her peers was one of grit and grief. Marsden’s stories, Pung says, showed a world in which young people like her had a place. They contained an Australia which reflected the Australia Pung and her peers lived in. Young characters in Marsden’s books were angry, depressed, antisocial, traumatised, resilient, religious, hard-working, rebellious. They got things wrong – and they had brilliant successes. To Pung, they were relatable, and the fact that they were given agency to tell their own stories, imbued the characters with power and hope. Marsden’s adult characters could be inept, loving, empowering, abusive, absent, inspiring – they seemed real, with capacity to do good and capacity to do evil.

By describing her world and Marsden’s place in it, Pung counters the negative criticism levelled at Marsden for the often ugly, violent, and sad topics he deals with. The author offers her gratitude to Marsden for bringing young Australians’ stories into being, validating their experiences, and helping them to grow.

I look at my bookshelf and see the ghosts of books I read as a teenager that never made it to my adult shelf. I remember how important many of Marsden’s characters were to me throughout my adolescence. Some of his characters, I believe, helped my parents understand me. I’d like to go searching for these books again, these memories of my becoming who I am.

I read On John Marsden a second time in a bookshop café. It deserved a little more of my attention than I first gave it. I wanted to consider Pung’s questions and insights with my brain switched on. Pung’s writing is clear and direct. It’s easy to read her books quickly, like listening to a conversation, and miss the opportunity to ponder her ideas. Pung considers the influence of class on what is considered acceptable for Australian young adult literature. She considers what it is to grow up, and how young adult literature can support growth, or infantilise young people. She considers Marsden’s work in terms of culture, family and education, and in terms of its influence on her own writing. Pung also writes about her relationship with Marsden and how the two authors came to be friends. Needless to say, hers is not a book of criticism.

I recommend On John Marsden for fans of Marsden’s work, for parents of young adults, for writers, and teachers. On John Marsden is available for $22.99 in hardback and $10.99 in eBook.

Jerri-Ellen Hines

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