On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

Review copy provided by the publisher.

This debut is only gently fabulist, but what it lacks in magical fireworks, it makes up for in human relationships. It’s the story of a young Afghani girl whose family travels as refugees to Australia. She continues to have a relationship with a friend she meets along the way that is the most speculative element of the book, and also one of the warmest elements.

Because life in Australia is not the welcoming paradise of their dreams. Firuzeh, her parents, and her brother Nour have profoundly different struggles from each other, making it hard for each family member to understand the others’ behavior. Their stories diverge, but Firuzeh’s relationship with story is a major part of what gets her through some of her worst struggles and brings her family back together.

For me the chapter where “the writer” appears from America, doing research into her book, is the least effective part of this story. If Yu hadn’t chosen to apply the language of a calling to writing about this specifically, I would not have questioned it in those terms, but bringing it up felt like trying to stave off criticism rather than enhancing Firuzeh’s story–and some of the most pertinent questions remained unasked. (For example, “why was your ‘calling’ to criticize another wealthy nation’s handling of the immigrant crisis in ways that were impeccably researched to be specifically Australian rather than turning your thoughts to a similar system in which you personally might be implicated?” Not, apparently, on the list of earnest self-searching questions; ah well.)

But when Yu gets out of her own way, Firuzeh’s relationships and struggles are compelling, and this is a book well worth reading.

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