the Little Red Reviewer

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

Posted on: February 14, 2021

much thanks to Erewhon Books for providing an ARC!



The opening pages of On Fragile Waves includes a short visual poem.  


At first, I was worried, was the whole book going to be poetry of this style? Because while I respect poetry, I’m not so good at “getting it”.


Ah, but this particular visual poem!  As it tap-danced across the page, I “got it”! And in a way, I hoped the entire book would be like this.  


The entire book is, and isn’t, like those opening pages.   That opening poem gives sound and texture and context to a small family,  two parents who first have a daughter, and then a son, and then the relief that the war is finally over.  


The rest of the book is them realizing they were wrong, and that the only way to escape war is to escape Afghanistan.


You know how poetry can by design feel a bit detached, in a good way?  Because words or meter or space is in someway constrained, the poet only puts in what is most important.  Emotion gets put in over exposition, experience gets put in over worldbuilding. Gut punches get put in over grammar.  On Fragile Waves isn’t weighed down by the ornaments of expected story telling grammar, the open and close-quotes around dialog, the verbs that give rise to how the person spoke those words. Yes, they are ornaments that are designed to, among other things, add characterization and impact to dialog, and yes, without them the dialog can float like dreamy clouds.   The only punctuation in On Fragile Waves is the bare minimum necessary to get the story across.  


When I’ve come across stories with the bare minimum of punctuation, the bare minimum of worldbuilding, first of all I tend to really like it, and second I tend to wonder what were these characters going through that all they had was the bare minimum? Were they exhausted? Hungry? Terrified of being noticed?   Obviously, writing prose in this manner is nothing more than a deliberate choice the author makes, knowing they’ll just need to do other things to make sure it’s clear who is speaking, and to help the reader get to know the characters better. In a way, writing like this is like writing a huge prose poem – because of preset constraints, you have to remove things that aren’t necessary. 


I think readers will either love Yu’s style, or be very turned off by it. 


I loved it on the first page, and I was weeping by the end. I found Yu’s writing style, and the story that she told to be very, very effective.   There’s hardly any worldbuilding or visual descriptions in this book, yet I could see everything, I could hear the storms, I could see the fear on people’s faces.  There’s hardly any overt characterization, yet I knew Nour’s yearning to play with other kids, I heard everything their father wasn’t saying.  

On Fragile Waves is a masterwork of negative space,  of using only a few words to communicate everything.  When I find myself unable to express my feelings, I tend to complain that English is worthless, because words aren’t the language that works for what I want to communicate. I have so much in me, and using English means I have to crush all those things into boxy words that don’t mean what I’m trying to say, and so often, in the end, I end up saying nothing, and having people describe me as “quiet”.  In On Fragile Waves,  Yu showed me there is a way to say what I’m feeling, it is possible!  Huh.  sounds like I need to find all the authors that write with minimum punctuation, and read them. Looks like this writing style really, really speaks to me!


Most of the story is told by Firuzeh, who I think is around 8 years old at the beginning of the story, and maybe around 10 or 11 by the end. And what’s fascinating about telling most of the chapters from her point of view is that all the adults know what’s going on, and some of them speak quite plainly. And she has absolutely no idea what’s going on. Her younger brother, Nour understands even less.  Her lack of understanding is partly that her parents are trying to shield their children from the horrors of war, and partly because she’s only nine years old!

On Fragile Waves is the story of how Firuzeh and Nour’s parents smuggled the family out of war-torn Afghanistan.   If you are asking “why? What were the specific reasons?” this story isn’t for you.  This isn’t a story about war, or politics, or the reasons behind anything.  This is a story about a family looking for a safe place. This mother and father don’t give a shit about the why behind a war.  A safer life for their children is their top priority. 


It’s hard to talk about the rest of the book with spoilers, but I’ll try.   I’ll just pretend I’m hiding the worst of my fears and anxieties from my child, so all you see is hope.   Like Firuzeh and Nour’s father, I’ll spin a fairy tale of adventures and distractions to keep you occupied and quiet, and to keep you believing that even though the hero goes through dark times and may even be imprisoned by the evil vizier, there is always a happy ending, eventually.


Hmm….  I can’t spin a story like that. I guess I’m more like their mother.


What’s On Fragile Waves doing on the science fiction shelf, you ask?  Well, it shouldn’t be on that shelf, in my opinion, it should be with fiction/literature. But the story does have elements of magical realism!  Imagine stories that come to life in the minds of children, an imaginary friend who might be a ghost who might be a coping mechanism or who truly might be a ghost.


How much of this family’s story follows the ups and downs of a fairy tale? In the old stories, even the hero admits to being afraid of the dragon, because the dragon has the power to kill. In the old stories, the treasure is lost and must be found,  the innocent are unjustly imprisoned, those in power make decisions out of ignorance, greed, or both.  In the old stories, sometimes winning comes at great cost, which is always glossed over in the story, because it’s just too depressing to think about, and who wants that depressing crap in their epic tales?


Very minor spoilers ahead, but I can’t help myself I need to tell you about a few specific scenes.


Firuzeh meets a girl her own age, and they  become reluctant friends.  They make one of those childish promises along the lines of “when we get to Australia, we’ll find each other!”. When the girl is ripped away, she finds Firuzeh again, in the form of a ghost. As a ghost, she pushes Firuzeh to do and say certain things.  Is Firuzeh really being haunted? Or is she just blaming things on her “imaginary friend”?  I loved the ambiguity of it, and I loved the awkward friendship between Firuzeh and the ghost. 


I basically cried the entire time the family is in the refugee camp in Nauru.  Near the end of their time there, Firuzeh befriends and adult woman who  looks so nice! She’s always smiling, and somehow this woman has snacks? And cigarettes? And make up? The woman is amused by Firuzeh’s innocence. She gives the little girl some snacks and firmly but politely says “never talk to me again”.   In about 10 years, Firuzeh is going to figure out the woman was a prostitute. 


The family is finally, finally settled in a refugee community in Australia. The children are enrolled in school, the parents try to learn English, the father tries to get a job.  It often falls to Firuzeh to translate for her parents, things like official documents, communications from case workers, signs on public transit, what doctors are saying.  She’s maybe twelve years old? 


How exhausted must her parents be by this point? 


No wonder this book has minimal punctuation, and absolutely no ornamentation.  Everyone is too burned out to care about the fancy bits.   When an author makes the deliberate decision to remove the “fancy bits”, they are laying everything bare.  There is nowhere to hide mistakes or gloss them over.


And at what point does someone become so exhausted, so emptied out, so burned out, that there is nothing left?   And it’s not something that person did, that caused them to get that tired, or that burned out.  It’s what the world did to them.  When someone gets that burned out, it isn’t their doing, it’s ours.  


Have some tissues handy when you read On Fragile Wings.  Don’t read it on public transit, unless you want a bunch of strangers to see you cry.

7 Responses to "On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu"

Great and thorough review. I’ve read only one short fiction by this author – “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight”, and that was nothing to write home about. Anyway, here’s the review•-2016-•-fairy-tale-short-story-by-e-lily-yu/

Liked by 1 person

thank you! Yeah, I’ve not read a ton of her other work either. Should I skip “The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” and try a different one?

Liked by 1 person

The story is online available (link in review), and it’s short. I liked it, so you might give it a try

Liked by 1 person

After 5 days without power here in Portland, including no internet or cell, we’re just waking up. Iced in on our hill we just sat with sweats, hoodies, gloves and went to bed at dark. Got some daytime reading on books on hand, no SF as it turned out, except a couple of H. Beam Piper short stories.

Liked by 1 person

omgoodness, 5 days?? i can’t even imagine! i hope you are ok!


I’m so glad I’ve ordered this now. This is just the loveliest, most thoughtful review.
I have only read Yu’s short story The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees, on the strength of which I ordered On Fragile Waves. This book sounds very different to the short story I read, but I am absolutely here for prose poetry, stripped back language/punctuation and feelings!!

Liked by 1 person

i think you will love this! (but have tissues handy!). thank you for your kind words about my review. 🙂 ❤

Liked by 1 person

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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