This year’s Washington State Book Award winner for fiction is E. Lily Yu’s astonishing novel “On Fragile Waves,” about two Afghan children whose family flees their war-torn home only to face an uncertain future in Australia. Yu weaves poetry, folklore and simple, direct dialogue into a mesmerizing story that is timeless and yet of this time.
Firuzeh and her brother, Nour, are of an age where they still adore their father’s gentle storytelling when they first leave Kabul, Afghanistan, for Pakistan on their way to Australia. Atay’s familiar tales of Rostam and his brave and faithful steed, Rakhsh, who fought lions and dragons and had marvelous adventures, are meant as a comfort and a distraction. But over time, as the children experience the hardships and challenges of being unwanted immigrants, their patience for these stories wanes.
“Telling stories is difficult,” Firuzeh says to Nour, “Even when you know how they should end. And living’s harder.”
First, there is the terror of crossing the border into Pakistan, with only a name and number of a man they have given their life savings to in exchange for documents and plane tickets. Then there is their first airplane ride, to Jakarta, where they try papayas, rambutan and jackfruit, and Firuzeh becomes violently ill.
Next, there is a late-night summons to a fishing boat where they are crowded aboard with their new friend, Nasima, and family. They evade boredom and sharks and hunger on the week-long voyage to Australia, only to be devastated by a typhoon. Then, safe at last on the shores of an oppressively hot island, they are left to molder while officials ponder their fate.
Yu ably conveys the strain that uncertainty places on the family, and the difficulties the children face assimilating into Australian school. Fit and active Nour readily joins sports teams but the family struggles with paying for his uniform. Firuzeh falls in with other immigrant girls, but clashes with Gulalai, who sees her as a rival. Firuzeh is a compelling protagonist, wise enough to appreciate the pressures on her parents and yet still frustrated by their reluctance to adjust to Australian mores and let her go to the movies with her friends.
This novel reads quickly enough that it can be finished in a few sittings, then re-read and savored. Yu is skilled at showing not telling, and having readers understand her meaning with a few choice words. She portrays each of her characters with sensitivity and compassion, showing their faults as well as their courage and strength. She deftly includes elements of the supernatural, like ghosts and jinni, who comfort and guide Firuzeh and Nour.
It is easy to understand why Yu has received much recognition for her short story writing, which has been published by McSweeney’s and Tor.com, among others. This first novel is a knockout and readers will eagerly anticipate whatever she writes next.
Visit wcls.org to put a hold on the book or eBook version of “On Fragile Waves.”
Christine Perkins is executive director of the Whatcom County Library System, which serves all the communities in Whatcom County outside the city limits of Bellingham. Experience the power of sharing — at the library!