Review: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

Firuzeh and her brother Nour are children of fire, born in an Afghanistan fractured by war. When their parents, their Atay and Abay, decide to leave, they spin fairy tales of their destination, the mythical land and opportunities of Australia.

As the family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru, heading toward a hope of home, they must rely on fragile and temporary shelters, strangers both mercenary and kind, and friends who vanish as quickly as they’re found.

When they arrive in Australia, what seemed like a stable shore gives way to treacherous currents. Neighbors, classmates, and the government seek their own ends, indifferent to the family’s fate. For Firuzeh, her fantasy worlds provide some relief, but as her family and home splinter, she must surface from these imaginings and find a new way.

Rating: 3/5

Review

I should preface this review by saying that, in some aspects, my feelings about this book are essentially ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. I’m not the biggest fan of experimental prose, and if I’d known that I might have thought twice about requesting an ARC that doesn’t involve standard punctuation and sentence structure. I’m also a little confused about the decision to market this book as ‘magical realism’: while the genre should invoke a sense of fuzziness about whether something is “real” or supernatural, this book never really raised that question for me. The speculative elements were a very minor part of the story to the point it almost could have been told without them, and it felt clear to me that they were really just a manifestation of Firuzeh’s imagination and a way for her to process her trauma and grief.

Having said that, this book tells an important story about the heartbreaking treatment of refugees in Australia, and the horrifying consequences of those decisions. It really emphasises the sheer impersonalness of the system: the endless waiting on paperwork, the seemingly arbitary nature of the decisions, the way Firuzeh’s family are constantly required to defend their need for the basic human right of safefy. It doesn’t shy away from the horrors that have occurred on Nauru. And it also nails the symbotic relationship between policy and community attitudes – Firuzeh’s family experience racism every day in Australia from those who support Australia’s tough stance on refugees, which then enables the policy to be continued with little opposition.

But the abstract style meant I never connected with the characters or their journey in the way I would have liked. I couldn’t get a good read in Firuzeh as a person, how old she and her peers were meant to be (do ten year olds routinely wag school and use the ‘c word’ these days?) or what her dreams were for her better life. I also didn’t really appreciate the random interludes to tell us the stories of some of the other side characters (such as Nasima’s brothers, or Grace, the family’s English tutor); the stories themselves had potential, but our glimpses of these characters’ lives were too fleeting to really capture the true diversity of the refugee experience and distracted from Firuzeh’s story.

I still recommend reading this book to get a better understanding of Australia’s refugee policy and to prompt further discussions about the current approach, even if the storytelling itself didn’t live up to my (admittedly lofty) expectations.

Note: I received an ARC from Erewhon in exchange for a review. On Fragile Waves will be released on 2 February.

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