After a decade of excellent short stories, E. Lily Yu has published her debut novel. On Fragile Waves is a tale about an Afghan family’s flight from war, their search for a new place to call home, and the stories they tell each other to survive the journey.
Firuzeh and her brother Nour are born and raised amidst the drumbeat of war in Kabul. The story follows their family as they leave Afghanistan and travel the dangerous seas and shores of Indonesia and Nauru, relying on kind strangers and cutthroat smugglers to find their way. When they arrive at last in Australia, their promised land is not what they had dreamed of—now, Firuzeh and her family must navigate the new and treacherous waters of Australian society, its unfamiliar culture and peoples, and hold each other close when circumstances threaten to splinter the family apart.
The novel opens with a visual poem, and this sets up the lyrical, haunting texture that underlines every phrase and scene. Yu brings her mastery of language and atmosphere to this work, dividing it more specifically into three distinct narrative modes: there is the fable-like prose that weaves in and out of the protagonist’s perspective; the fragmented style of ghosts and dreams; and the snapshot scenes of supporting characters and their experiences within a cruel and unforgiving immigration system.
Moonlight washed the gnawed coral pinnacles, frosted the skeletal phosphate cranes, and drenched the canvas tents where a hundred dreamers dreamed grey, grim, and miserable dreams. The sky was salted with stars.
Yu’s precise, poetic style is incredibly effective at holding together the disparate strands of this narrative. I loved the choice to strip the text of all but the most necessary punctuation—no quotation marks, only the occasional period and hanging question to bookend a sentence. It underlines the family’s tension and desperate hope, the words and days bleeding into each other as they wait for nameless bureaucrats to open the doors to the next part of their journey. Yu rarely indicates who is speaking, allowing the dialogue to flow organically from one line to the next, and utilizes the shape and space between words to build rhythm, voice, and context. The words that adults swallow back in front of the children ring loud and clear in the empty spaces between the text.
Meanwhile, the novel’s speculative elements cling close to Firuzeh’s everyday life—the fable of Rustam and Rakhsh, for example, and the ghost of her friend Nasima who drowned during the sea passage and now follows Firuzeh everywhere. These fantastical characters amplify Firuzeh’s longing for steady friendships and a stable home, as she holds the fables close and repeats them to herself and to her brother, like talismans against tragedy. Eventually, Firuzeh must learn to let go of her ghosts, to gather strength and embrace new stories and a new world.
The world had bruised and gone soft, and now impossible things teemed and wormed out of it. Here were monsters, the most monstrous being daily life.
The novel deftly layers story after story, life after life, atop each other. Some of them Firuzeh glimpses in passing: in her interactions with various people on the boats, in the detention facilities, and in the city, as well as the scenes told from supporting character perspectives, in which Yu shows how displacement has cast so many people out of their countries. These are not only Firuzeh’s family from Afghanistan, but also the Iranian and Iraqi families they meet on their journey, the pregnant woman from China in the detention camp, even the English-language tutor who inherited her parents’ legacy of migration from Vietnam. These characters carry their own distinct stories outside of their displacement, and at the same time, there is an underlying thread of shared pain and survival that binds them in solidarity with each other.
Systems of violence soak every crevice of the narrative—ranging from warfare to racism to petty cruelty and humiliation at the hands of individual guards—and this reinforces the consistent, complete inhumanity with which immigrants and refugees are treated in the novel and the world alike. Firuzeh’s life echoes with lost opportunities, stolen innocence, and the sacrifices that her family make in order to keep surviving. Yu slips in and out of dreamlike prose, but she is unflinching in showing the slow and thorough dehumanization of asylum seekers and refugees, the sheer xenophobia of the government and the destructive complicity of Australian society. The overlapping lattices of power are demonstrated again and again, and each time it is people like Firuzeh’s family who must pay the cost. Over the course of the narrative, the family grows exhausted, their dignity and selfhood emptied out. Yu shows that it is the world that has done this to them, that has demanded them to prove their worth until there is nothing left to give.
As a consequence, each fleeting gesture of kindness and charity is an oasis, a great and temporary relief from the brutality that mires the characters. We are shown glimpses of other lives, from Khala Zahra’s offer of precious treats and companionship in the detention camp to schoolteachers who do the best they can to support refugees with the limited resources they have. These are tiny moments of human decency, almost deafened by the solid barriers of the impersonal immigration system, and yet Yu shows how each action is still meaningful, worth the effort every time.
Anyone can suffer. But joy—that’s hard. Ask about joy.
On Fragile Waves has been posited as a magical realist novel, but I found the speculative aspects very slim—it may be more accurate to approach it with the expectation of a literary novel that contains fabulist elements. Yu’s light but deft touch on the surreal, with Nasima’s ghost and interwoven fables, serve to accentuate Firuzeh’s childish outlook and heighten the grim reality of Australian immigration policies. The magical acts as a doorway for Firuzeh to process her trauma and grief, but we are brought firmly back to earth when considering the possibilities in the family’s future.
This novel is rigorously researched and deeply poignant—it moved me deeply. And yet, with a subject matter like this, I don’t want to stop here. As an advocate for migrant artists in the UK, Firuzeh’s story strikes close to home. I am still furious, always, at the sheer injustice and inhumanity of the treatment towards immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. How can we help? How can we educate ourselves and each other? How can we carry the memory of so many traumas and keep moving forward? How do we tear these systems down and build better ones in their place? It is the people most directly affected by these immigration policies, by the circumstances that force families out of their homes and into impossible choices, who are rightly centred in Yu’s narrative, but these are the questions that linger in the shadows, that Yu asks the reader—what now, now that you know?
On Fragile Waves is not for people who are looking to disappear, to escape into books and forget about our world. This is a story for people who are searching for solace and solidarity, who believe—as Firuzeh eventually does—that stories keep us afloat and dreaming when the world is collapsing, and that the path towards social justice and collective liberation is one that we pave together, each choice and each tale a brick laid on the road to a brighter, kinder future.