Book Review: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

Genre : Literary Fiction, Magical Realism

Publisher : Erewhon

Length : 288 pages

Format : eARC

Rating : 2,5 stars

Publication Date: February 2nd 2021


Firuzeh and her brother Nour are children of fire, born in an Afghanistan fractured by war. When their parents, their Atay and Abay, decide to leave, they spin fairy tales of their destination, the mythical land and opportunities of Australia.

As the family journeys from Pakistan to Indonesia to Nauru, heading toward a hope of home, they must rely on fragile and temporary shelters, strangers both mercenary and kind, and friends who vanish as quickly as they’re found.

When they arrive in Australia, what seemed like a stable shore gives way to treacherous currents. Neighbors, classmates, and the government seek their own ends, indifferent to the family’s fate. For Firuzeh, her fantasy worlds provide some relief, but as her family and home splinter, she must surface from these imaginings and find a new way.


A family leaves a war-torn Afghanistan in search of a better life in Australia. However, their journey is not without difficulties and, once they reach Australia, they quickly realize that their new home is not exactly welcoming.

I didn’t have the best reading experience with On Fragile Waves. I almost put the book down several times because I struggled quite a bit with the writing style. I have read a few of Yu’s short stories and I have enjoyed them all which is why I was very excited to read her debut novel. However, while I can enjoy experimental writing in flash pieces or short stories, I have come to realize that I’m not a fan of this type of writing in longer works.

In this novel, the author doesn’t use quotation marks and the story is mainly told through dialogues with few descriptions and indications to help the reader picturing the scenes or understanding who is talking when. Everything is inferred from the dialogue and it made the story difficult to follow for me. I found myself reading paragraphs several times to understand who was speaking to whom. In certain parts, it was easy to understand who was speaking but when new characters were introduced, I was often confused. The writing and the structure of the story made it very hard for me to connect and care about the characters.

Nevertheless, if I struggled with the writing, I really appreciated the themes explored by the author. Yu portrayed well the struggles immigrants are faced with when they try to leave their countries, how they are welcomed (or not) in their new country and how small acts of kindness can make a big difference between living and dying.

I also liked the fact that Firuzeh, a young girl, and her brother Nour are at the center of story – I think a lot of stories about the immigrant experience are told from the point of views of adults and not children. However, I struggled with their perspectives because neither of them acted or talked like children even before their journey to Australia. I completely understand that such a journey would make the children grow up faster but, from the beginning of the novel they both acted like adults and it was hard to picture small children behaving the way they did.

I think this book is a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. I’m sure a lot of readers are going to love this book but I didn’t have the best experience with it. I liked the themes explored but the execution wasn’t for me. Several moments in On Fragile Waves were very powerful and several sentences made me stop because they were beautiful but, if I enjoyed pieces of this book quite a bit, as a novel, it didn’t work for me.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I received a copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. My thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu

    1. If you want to read it, I would recommend reading a free sample from Amazon or some other retailers. Reading a few pages will give you a taste of the writing and if you like it then you’ll probably enjoy the book!
      I had heard great things about the book so I forced myself to finish it but I should have given up… :/ It’s frustrating when you really love the themes of a book but not its execution!


  1. The concept at the core of this book sounds very interesting – not to mention actual – but I understand how the peculiarities of the writing might have worked against your enjoyment of the story: having to re-read passages to understand what is what sounds like the worst way of falling out of the narrative flow…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve had this one on my radar and it does worry me a bit that you struggled with it, makes me think I might have the same issue. But I think I’m still curious enough that I’ll check it out at some point. Thanks for your thoughts on this one!

    Liked by 1 person

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