Set in Sydney's southwest suburbs in the 1990s, this is a raw, beautiful and heartbreaking story of love and coming-of-age. At the backbone of this gently uncurling love story is the pervasive and haunting narrative of the migrant experience. We are reminded of the way in which trauma can be passed along from one generation to the next - so that the children of migrants often feel burdened with their parent's pain, even before they fully understand it themselves.
The trauma experienced by the parents in The Coconut Children haunts their second generation Vietnamese-Australian children like ghosts.
Sixteen-year-old Vince Tran is just out of juvie and has returned to his hometown of Cabramatta. His childhood friend Sonny watches from her bedroom window, observing the way in which Vince's triumphant homecoming is like "a crack of light entering a prison cell," dreaming that he might instantly remember her and recognise that she needs rescuing.
But it seems that Sonny and Vince will initially just skirt around the periphery of each other; Sonny is preoccupied with looking after her fragile younger brother, and trying to avoid the unpredictable wrath of her mother, while Vince initially stays away from his childhood home, skirting danger with his friends, the rage he has struggled to contain since childhood always so close to the surface.
I read this book longing for Vince to come into Sonny's orbit sooner: for me, the story really ignited when the two crossed paths again and began to find solace in each other. Sharing their pain became a step closer to healing: even if at times the healing process burnt like the menthol balm advocated by Sonny's mother for all injuries. I loved the late night conversations between the two on their childhood walkie talkie's, the whispered sharing of confidences and secrets. The way in which they both shared their complicated feelings of love and resentment towards their parents.
I also very much enjoyed the frank and witty conversations between Sonny and her best friend Najma, which added humour and light to the story.
The writing itself is breathtakingly beautiful - there is a lyricism to it that at times reads like poetry; many sentences seem imbued with hidden meaning. The descriptions of the passing seasons sparkle like jewels. At other times the writing seems to tremble with the grief of Sonny's and Vince's parents, and all those who had gone before them - sentences bruised with unimaginable trauma, expressing itself through the parents in rage, violence, and grief.
But it is the love between Vince and Sonny which slowly, inexorably, injects light into this narrative of loss and grief - so that we are left with a bright flickering of hope.
While this is the story of two teenagers, I would recommend this book for the older end of the young adult market or the 'new adult' market, due to the more mature content (around themes of domestic violence, drug abuse, and intergenerational trauma).
This is an assured, sparkling and original debut from a young author; I look forward to seeing what Vivian Pham writes next.
Published by Vintage Books (Penguin Australia).