On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu
In the opening pages of On Fragile Waves (2021), by E. Lily Yu, young Firuzeh, her brother Naur, and their parents are on the start of a long journey from war-torn Kabul to the hope of a better life in Australia. To pass the time on that first leg, Firuzeh’s mother entertains them with a fairy tale. But the novel will be no fairy tale, as the family makes its way through Pakistan to Indonesia to an immigration detention camp on Nauru Island and finally to Australia itself, facing loss and discrimination, poverty and indignity, and a long-standing instability and uncertainty that erodes their family ties. Filled with poetry, fairy tales, and flashes of magical realism in the form of a drowned girl who remains Firuzeh’s best friend, On Fragile Waves is a lyrical, moving, and at times heartrending story.
The journey is fraught with tension from the very beginning, as a fellow traveler on a bus marvels at their naivety in trusting to “a name and a phone number” all the way to Australia, clearly implying they’ve been taken advantage of, though Firuzeh’s mother Abay fiercely defends their father: “My husband is no fool.” Time and again the reader is forced to face a gnawing fear that the family will never make it: disputes over supposedly-agreed-to fees, worrisomely-long periods of time waiting for promised documents, promised boats, promised meetings, the ways in which the elements themselves seem to conspire against them.
When they do, in fact, make it to Australia, it is not the land of hope they dreamed it to be. Instead it’s an isolated setting of tents, reeking public toilets, too little water, xenophobic guards and townspeople, and agonizing waits to hear if they will be accepted as immigrants or deported. Even that first acceptance means nothing, since it is built on a shifting mound of sand that threatens to evaporate at any moment beneath their feet, the threat of forced return to Afghanistan always looming.
Through it the family has to endure the usual immigrant/refugee problems: threats of violence, struggles with the language, finding work that is less than what you were at home, fitting into a new life, new country, new customs. Firuzeh, meanwhile, has to navigate the already troublesome waters of middle school and all that comes with that hellish time period. Even as the family threatens to disintegrate, each of them finds ways at various times to endure, not all of them healthy. For Firuzeh, one way are her conversations with her drowned friend Nasima, a figment of her imagination one might think, save for how Nasima seems to leave the furniture wet when she departs.
The tension is sharply maintained throughout. Early in the story, after their too-small boat is swept along during a monsoon storm, Yu writes “Then the counting began. Names wavered in the air,” and you know the count will be short and all you are waiting for is who was lost. These losses, in various forms, pile up and threaten to grow almost unbearable.
Throughout, Yu’s dialog is spot on, the language shifts as needed from realistic to poetic, the characterization is always keen, and the children’s voices never feel anything but true to their age and experiences. The structure of the novel is equally rich, with the main plot thread interwoven with the fairy tales, some poetry, and the risky but successful choice to go beyond the family via several chapters that briefly dip into a side character’s point-of-view, such as a young woman who tutors Firuzeh’s mother in English, a music teacher, or a brutish guard who finds “a certain thrill in donning helmet and kneepads … watching detainees ‘faces transform from rage to fear”. Even in the little space they are given, these characters are fully realized, fully three-dimensional creations whose threads are seamlessly woven in to enhance the tapestry Yu is creating.
If I had any complaint in my reading, it was that I wished Yu had leaned a bit more fully into both the fairy tales and the magical realism. I was glad for their presence, but it felt somewhat timid, too tightly clamped down. But this was a minor issue at most.
On Fragile Waves is not a comforting tale, though it has its moments of kindness and even, if only for moments, happiness. It ends in both horror and hope, a grief for what has happened and, perhaps (only perhaps), a promise for what might come. Not an easy story then, but one well worth the reading.