E. Lily Yu’s 2021 On Fragile Waves is an upcoming ghost story, suitable for Halloween (eve).
When parents Atay and Abay decide to flee war-torn Afghanistan for the safety of Australia, they spin tales of the wonderful life to come to their daughter Firuzeh and son Nour. The trip is fantastically expensive and the route frustratingly indirect, but once they wend their way through Pakistan and Indonesia, a new home in Australia will be theirs.
Or, as it turns out, not.
Getting to Australia is fraught enough. The boat the family boards nearly sinks in a storm; Firuzeh’s shipboard friend Nasima is washed overboard and drowned. There is no haven at the end of the voyage, only a refugee camp on forbidding Nauru.
The twenty-one square kilometres of Nauru offer few amenities and little hope of escape. It is simply a convenient place to deposit persons arriving without papers until such time as they manage to obtain a visa or (far more likely) are sent back to enjoy whatever fate it was they were trying to escape. Life on Nauru is a combination of boredom and despair, leavened by obscure rules mercilessly enforced. It also features predatory exploitation by bored, dim Australian officials.
Most of those who arrive on Nauru are deported. Some die on Nauru. Others kill themselves. Firuzeh, Nour and their parents are amongst the lucky minority who manage to win temporary visas to reside in Australia.
Australia is no paradise. They must deal with an unfamiliar language and odd social customs. The family’s visa situation makes employment problematic. Their visas can be withdrawn at the whim of the Australian bureaucrats. Firuzeh and Nour do their best to make new lives for themselves … but ultimately all they have is uncertainty.
Wait, you say, this doesn’t sound like a fantasy at all. There are a few elements that are arguably fantastic. Many of the folk stories spun throughout the novel are fantastic in nature. Firuzeh’s friend Nasima stays her friend, despite being a ghost. Of course, this could be simply Firuzeh’s imagination, but there is some physical evidence that Nasima’s ghost is real .
Most tellingly, the family does escape Nauru, a development that is the stuff of extreme fantasy.
You might also think this sounds bleak. This is because the story is in fact bleak. It’s not impossible that Firuzeh and Nour find happy, rewarding lives after the end of the book (at least for as long as it takes climate change and the vagaries of Australian politics to destroy their new lives). If so, the costs (financial, physical, and emotional) of this temporary surcease of suffering will be way way too high.
It’s a grim tale marvellously told by the talented Yu. It is not a tale that will comfort the reader — well, not unless they’re one of the sociopaths currently in charge of so many nation states, in which case they probably think this is pretty funny — but they will remember it.
1: The ghost to friend or sister bond reminded me of Palwick’s book Flying in Place. Which is also good and also grim.