Monday, March 14, 2022

Review: On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

Review: On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu

a review by Rich Horton

Last year a new imprint, Erewhon, published the first novels of two writers I have long considered among the most short fiction writers to debut in this millennium. (I like typing millennium instead of "century" or "last two decades" but they all mean the same thing in this context!) One of these is The Unraveling, by Benjamin Rosenbaum, which I have reviewed here already. The other is On Fragile Waves, by E. Lily Yu.

Yu made her first sale to the Kenyon Review in 2010 (neatly establishing her genre-crossing and literary cred from the getgo!) and in 2011 her second sale, "The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees", from Clarkesworld, made a big splash in the SF field, garnering Hugo and Nebula nominations, being reprinted in a couple of Best of the Year volumes (including, ahem, mine!) and contributing to her much deserved Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She has continued to publish lovely short fiction, sometimes straight SF, sometimes fantasy, sometimes mainstream, often an intriguing melange of genres. For that matter, she has worked in different forms entirely, including poetry and an opera libretto.

On Fragile Waves is a powerful novel on a very contemporary theme, that if anything has become more powerful, more apposite, since it appeared. It is the story of an Afghan family, fleeing the chaos in Afghanistan. At one level, it is purely naturalistic fiction, and very effectively so. But there is a fantastical level as well (or "magical realistic" as many reviews would have it) expressed in two ways -- the stories the parents of the main character tell, traditional stories (with variations) ... and, more obviously, a dead character who returns to haunt -- or inspire -- the main character.

The story is centered on Firuzeh, her brother Nour, and their parents. As it begins they are trying to arrange a way out of Afghanistan, dealing with corruption and broken promises of course -- and then they leave, first to Pakistan, then by boat to Nauru. The boat trip is terrifying, and on the way there is a typhoon, and Nasima, who has become sort of a frenemy to Firuzeh, is drowned. But she returns, haunting Firuzeh, sometimes hinting at the future. In Nauru they are marooned in a refugee camp for a long time -- a couple of years I suppose. Some families are forced to return home, others find a place in Australia, by some cruel random-seeming process. There is a cruelty from the guards, and endless boredom. But finally their chance comes, and they make it to Melbourne. The rest of the story follows their extremely strained introduction to Australian culture, learning the language, finding jobs (the father is a skilled auto mechanic, but such jobs are not easy for an immigrant with only a "Temporary Permanent Visa" to find), adjusting to school. There is help from well-meaning social workers and charities, and resentment from racist local. Nour is good at soccer and finds a team; Firuzeh makes friends at school and learns that that friendship may be conditional, and their parents struggle bitterly to make ends meet. And always there is the specter of their visas being canceled hanging over them.

The resolution remains somewhat conditional, balancing wrenching tragedy with real hope. It is affecting, quite powerful, angry, resigned, and beautifully written. A strong first novel, and one that remains timely (probably, alas, always will.) As I said, there is a fantastic element, but it's rather slim -- it works perfectly well as a realistic novel with a half-metaphorical (but maybe not?) glaze of magical realism enhancing it. Yu's short fiction always promised first-rate novels to come -- though even they didn't first-rate short fiction is reward enough! -- and this book only makes we want more fiction. (Which I did anyway!) 

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