Review: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

Publication Date: February 2, 2021
Attributes: adult novel, immigration story, nested narratives, hauntings
Quick note: I received a free copy of this book from Erewhon Books via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. That did not influence the content of this review.

Firuzeh loves her life in Afghanistan. But her parents take her, and her brother Nour, and run to Australia, hoping to escape war and political turbulence.

What follows is an aching story told through lyrical prose, part immigration tale and family drama, part nontraditional haunting.

Firuzeh's journey is fraught with dangers and tragedies. Early on, she meets another girl who dies during the oceanic passage to Australia. She'll continue to see echoes and visions of that girl throughout the book. Her family finally makes it to Australia, after the horrible voyage and limbo in a refugee camp. But they find cold welcome, and life in Australia comes with heartbreak after heartbreak.

Firuzeh, who's basically still a child, doesn't totally understand everything that's happening around her — wars, and deaths, and arbitrary legal processes, and inexplicable cruelties — which makes the story, if anything, more harrowing. But her narration is threaded with the fantasies and stories that she picks up from others along the way — moments of hope and brightness and longing through the shared connection with another world.

This book is beautiful, and phenomenally researched, and absolutely gut-wrenching. Most of the other stories I've read about refugees recently have been memoirs, or works of nonfiction written by younger relatives about their parents' or grandparents' journeys and legacies. This book takes a more fictionalized approach, and it does a lot right with it. The shadow of the girl from the voyage who haunts Firuzeh, especially, feels poignant and emotional. The narrative never tries to explain her presence or its implications, which works quite well.

There's a bit of an odd moment where a journalist pops in. Her interviewees criticize her only wanting refugee stories that are sad, rather than looking for moments of humanity and connection across a broader spectrum. The interaction feels troublesome, and a bit unresolved; it leaves the reader wondering whether the book itself has done something similar. The author seems to have grappled with this concern in her fictionalization — and I suspect she attempts to answer that concern through the moments where characters share fantasy and bond through storytelling. These, and other small moments, try to move the novel toward hope and magic as much as despair.

I think as a reader, I felt the devastation more than I felt the moments of hopefulness, so your mileage may vary there. Still, in all, an excellent debut novel and an empathetic tale that doesn't want to provide easy answers.

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Kae Petrin is a data journalist and media educator based in the Pacific Northwest. Find them at @petrinkae on Twitter.