On Fragile Waves

Book Cover: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

TL,DR: A poetic, haunting book recommended for those who want something beautiful and sad with a touch of the fantastical. Find it on Goodreads.

I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu earlier this month. It’s my first book on NetGalley after a long hiatus away, and what a lovely one to start with. OFW is a heartbreaking book about a family of refugees and the people they meet along the way. Although we experience many POV, Firuzeh, a precocious girl of about 12, is our anchor. We follow her, her younger brother, and her parents as they flee war-torn Afghanistan in search of a better life. The writing style is dreamlike, with no dialogue tags. There’s an often wibbly-wobbly sense of who’s speaking–which befits a family that uses stories to express itself and survive.

Yu has a gorgeous style, part poetry, part dream; I wish I hadn’t read a digital ARC, as I’d have underlined dozens of passages for gorgeous turns of phrase:

The drowned girl sat on the side of the bunk, face pale in the gloom, as if she wore her own scrap of moonlight. Her hair was wet and braided with kelp, pinned here and there with fishbone combs.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

The author is a master of haunting turns of phrase and raw yet understated emotion; the ending left me sobbing. It’s a truly beautiful book. I read it in two sittings, unable to tear myself away, and I’ll hold the characters in my heart for a long time.

There are two “buts” for me, though. The first: my own expectations. While I loved the ghost accompanying Firuzeh, I expected a deeper fantastical element since the book is descibed as magical realism. The ghost felt more like grace notes illustrating a grief-stricken imagination than something deeply intrinsic to the story. I think I wouldn’t have felt disappointed about this if my expectations had been different.

The second is something that the book mentions: who the author is vs. whose story it is. There’s an American character in the novel who comes to Australia to learn and write about the refugees; she is later told that she asked the wrong questions, that she should have focused on joy and not pain. I read this as a self-insertion by the author; while there is joy and victory and love in the story, it is fundamentally a tale about grief and loss. None of the three refugee families that first come to my mind have a happy ending, without huge loss or tragedy–they all suffer, and continue to suffer even when they should be safe.

The story holds the sense of an outsider teaching other outsiders about the pain of being a refugee. None of that makes the book any less beautiful or any less real, but it does make me wonder if the author could have told a similar story through a different frame more effectively. I don’t think I have the answer to that question. I also don’t think it makes it any less worth reading.

In all, I recommend this book, especially for those who want something beautiful and sad with a touch of the fantastical. Yu is an incredibly talented writer and I’ll certainly be seeking out more of her stories in the future.

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