On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

Stories like E. Lily Yu’s wrenching novel, On Fragile Waves, help explain why home is so often a sacred concept. Home—as opposed to just a place to live—is where we feel safe. It’s where we feel comfortable and understood. It’s where things smell right and where our stuff is. Firuzeh has lost her home and, although she finds a place to live, is still seeking a place that can be a new one.

We meet Firuzeh and her family—mother, father, and annoying little brother—just as they’ve begun their flight from Kabul, sometime after the turn of the twenty-first century. We glean details about what’s going on the way that a young child does: piecemeal in things adults say to each other that they shouldn’t say in front of children. In between stories meant to distract their children, Firuzeh’s parents talk about their worries over documentation, how much money to give to possibly unscrupulous human smugglers, where they’re going to get their next meal. The family manages fairly well until the boat that they take from Indonesia to Australia is intercepted by Australian forces.

Most of the book takes place in Nauru and Australia. After a rapid flight from Afghanistan, via Pakistan and Indonesia, Firuzeh’s family is interned on Nauru—an island nation that is growing notorious for the conditions undocumented people have to live in before they are either allowed to immigrate to Australia or be deported. We see a small slice of that and this portion of On Fragile Waves is among the most depressing things I’ve ever read. Language barriers and bureaucratic red tape send Firuzeh’s parents into a tranquilizer-fueled despair. The parents lose their stories. They lose the will to do much more than lie in their bunks while the children learn to take care of themselves around the internment camp. Unfortunately for Firuzeh and her brother, the despair never really lifts. It follows them as the family is first denied and then accepted for immigration.

The faint sense of adventure Firuzeh felt at the beginning of On Fragile Waves has completely evaporated by the time the family is allowed to settle in Melbourne. She’s older, for one thing. She’s seen her parents crumble under terrible pressures. Then there’s the bullying she experiences from girls she meets in her new school. In spite of this, Firuzeh comes into her own by the end of the book. She might not have found a new home, but she’s managed to put down some foundations for one.

I’ve read a lot of fiction featuring immigrants in the last few years. (I’m really glad publishers are bringing out more of these. Our society needs to hear these stories.) But On Fragile Waves is the first time I’ve gotten the tale from a child. Yu manages to write from the changing perspective of a growing girl in a completely believable way, one that illustrates just how little control undocumented people (and even legal immigrants, to some extent) have over what happens to them. Firuzeh and her family are so often at the mercy of literal and metaphorical waves that threaten to pull them all under.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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