A Story to Devour Like A Delicious Bowl of Pho

The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham

Image of the cover of the book The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham to accompany the book review by The Reading Edit on the same page. Cover image features lots of incense smoke swirls in pink against a grey background.

The Coconut Children is the story of two teenagers, Sonny and Vince, growing up in Cabramatta, south-western Sydney in the late 90s. Both are first generation Australians from refugee Vietnamese families. Sonny is quiet and lives with her family, including her perpetually inebriated grandmother and her volatile mother. Vince became a bit of a legend around Cabramatta after he was hauled off to juvenile detention when he was 14.

Sonny and Vince are neighbours and as children, they were very close. Now that Vince is back from his two year stint in juvie, Sonny watches on with interest as he steps back into life in the ‘burbs.

‘Since he had been taken away, it seemed a mist had settled over Cabramatta and their suburb had gone to sleep. The world was only awake when Vince was there to see it.’

Sonny (page 4)

In The Coconut Children, I loved the way author Vivian Pham portrays life for migrant and refugee families who arrived in Sydney from the late 70s. Trying to establish a new life in neighbourhoods troubled with gangs, violence, drugs and socio-economic hardship. But this is just the backdrop to the story. The Coconut Children is a moving, funny and sharp observation on community, family, love and loyalty.

I also loved the nods to Vietnamese culture throughout the book – Sonny’s mother always in the kitchen, cooking; her father tending to their garden filled with Vietnamese herbs, fruits and vegetables; the untranslated Vietnamese language filtered throughout the book. Most of all, I loved the way in which the author nails the balance between emotion and humour throughout the story. For her to achieve this at just 19 years of age, as a debut novelist is extraordinary.

Like Sonny, author Vivian Pham is a first generation Australian from a refugee Vietnamese family. 

Her father fled Vietnam at age 17 and made the dangerous journey by boat when, after 10 days at sea, it had run out of gasoline and was drifting with barely any food on board. The boat finally hit a coral reef and all passengers were forced to flee to safety on a nearby deserted Indonesian island. During the journey, their small boat was raided by pirates several times, leaving dark physical and emotional scars on the men, women and children on board. They lived on coconuts and fish for three months before finally being rescued by Indonesian officials and being taken to a refugee camp where he spent the next 12 months before finally being granted entry to the United States. You can read more on Vivian Pham’s family story here.

The stories her father shared with his daughter from this time is largely what inspired her writing. As Pham notes about her father in the back of the book, “…she grew up writing stories because she knew there was one stuck inside of him.” So, whilst The Coconut Children isn’t biographical, it is very much inspired by both her own upbringing in Sefton, Western Sydney and her father’s stories as a refugee.

When Vivian was 16, she joined a novella writing program run by a not-for-profit creative writing centre for marginalized young people in Redfern. Instead of writing short, she handed in 90,000 words – the first draft of The Coconut Children. A senior editor at Penguin Random House was a volunteer on the program and was assigned to work with Vivian on her story. He read the first page and was stunned. Her draft soon found it’s way to a Sydney literary agent who quickly realized it’s potential and took the manuscript to auction. Every publishing house that saw it, bid for it and in 2018, when she was just 17 years of age, Vivian signed a contract with Penguin Random House.

Now a third-year Arts student, majoring in philosophy and minoring in creative writing, The Coconut Children is no fluke. Vivian Pham is intelligent, funny and keenly observant. You can read more about Vivian Pham’s writing journey thus far here.

The Coconut Children is warm, funny, tender, and wise. It’s about not just what it means to be an immigrant, but what it means to be the child of a refugee and the responsibility of carrying that legacy and those stories with you, even though they aren’t directly your own.

Vivian Pham has been described as a ‘voice of her generation’ (Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Feb 2020). If you do decide to read The Coconut Children, I hope, like me, you will devour it like a big, delicious bowl of Pho.

The Coconut Children scores 5 coconuts out of 5.

Page-turning Australian Murder Mystery

The Survivors by Jane Harper

Cover of the book The Survivors by Jane Harper featuring ocean waves crashing into the wall of a rocky cave. Image to accompany book review on the same page.

Kieran Elliott lives with the guilt of the events that occurred one devastating day twelve years ago, when a once-in-80-year storm hit the small, coastal town of Evelyn Bay. The consequences of decisions made that day were fatal, and the disappearance of a local, fourteen year old girl was never resolved.

When Kieran returns to visit Evelyn Bay with his young family, it is soon apparent that all is not forgotten or forgiven by some of the locals. Then, the body of a young waitress is discovered on the beach. 

For Kieran, the investigation that follows presents questions that can’t be ignored, and revelations that prompt him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about the events that unfolded on the day of the storm. 

The Survivors is the fourth novel from popular Australian crime writer, Jane Harper. Her other books include The Dry, Force of Nature and The Lost Man.  As with these previous novels, The Survivors is an absolute page turner, with plenty of twists along the way. It delivers several interesting, likeable, well-crafted characters and a story that keeps you guessing right from the start.

I love the unique and distinctly Australian landscapes Harper features as the settings for her books. In The Survivors, Harper has captured the rugged beauty of the east coast of Tasmania; a coastline of sunken ships, enormous caves that tunnel through the cliff face, and cold, blue ocean as far as the eye can see. 

Jane Harper offers enjoyable and dependable murder-mysteries and has a real knack for teasing out a story. Whilst the ending wasn’t necessarily predictable, it didn’t come as a complete surprise either. But overall, the rest of the story was so entertaining and the ending still believable that I really didn’t mind.

Published 2020 by Pan Macmillan Australia.

An Australian Epic by the Author of The Book Thief

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

Cover of the book Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak featuring the silhouette of a boy sitting on a roof and behind him is an orange sky. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Bridge of Clay is Zusak’s next novel following the huge success of his international best-seller The Book Thief, and it couldn’t be more different. It is an Australian epic of family, love and loss – and it’s an absolute ripper.

At 579 pages, you can really immerse yourself in this sprawling family saga, set largely in the outer suburbs of Sydney. The story revolves around five brothers – the Dunbar boys – Matthew (the eldest and the narrator of the story), Rory, Henry, Clay and Tommy. Their mother is dead, their father has fled. The five boys, aged in their teens and early 20s, are growing up together in the family home.

A family of ramshackle tragedy. A comic book kapow of boys and blood and beasts.

Matthew Dunbar, Bridge of Clay (page 9)

They live with an assortment of pets collected by the youngest brother, animal lover, Tommy. The pets are each named after characters from the great Greek literary works, The Illiad and The Odyssey. So named perhaps in tribute to their mother, Penny Dunbar, who carried the books as a young immigrant from the Eastern Bloc and went on to lovingly read the stories to her sons, just as her father had read them to her.

Following the death of the boys’ mother, their father has retreated to the outback, in a house beside a river that overflows in big rain and isolates him from the town.

Our protagonist, Clay, is 16 years old and the fourth Dunbar boy. He is quiet and sensitive, yet also extremely physical. Always training for something, but none of them, including Clay, know what that is. All they know is that whatever it is, when that day comes, he’ll be ready.

And that may just be the day their father (only ever referred to as ‘The Murderer’ throughout the book) returns to ask the boys for their help to build a bridge over the river by his home. The sudden, unexpected return of their father is not welcomed by the boys; Clay, the only one who agrees to take their father up on his offer.

As the story unfolds, the building of the bridge provides a metaphor for the slow, rebuilding of the relationship between Clay and his father and the healing from grief following the death of their mother.

Clay will absolutely work his way into your heart. His young life has been marred by immense loss, tragedy and grief, but also love. As Matthew writes on page 10

“Let me tell you about our brother. The fourth Dunbar boy named Clay. Everything happened to him. We were all of us changed through him.”

Matthew Dunbar, Bridge of Clay (page 10)

Bridge of Clay will have you laughing out loud at unexpected moments. Equally, there will be times when your heart will swell with sadness and grief for the Dunbar boys, particularly Clay. With both scenarios, Zusak often catches the reader off-guard with his trademark laconic style.

Bridge of Clay took Zusak over ten years to write, and I for one am so glad he persevered.

Published 2019 by Pan Macmillan Australia, 592 pages.

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