Review: The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham, by Ebony Bryant

Title: The Coconut Children
Author: Vivian Pham

Genre: YA, coming-of-age, urban fiction
Favourite quote: ‘The coconut children on the trees need to drop into the water. That way the ocean can carry them to another island, where they can grow.’

When offered the chance to review The Coconut Children, I jumped on it right away. Despite knowing very little about the book, I had seen it floating around in the social sphere enough times that you could say my interest had been piqued. From the minimal information I had stumbled across online I understood that this was Pham’s debut piece. However, whether the hype was for the author or the story she told, I couldn’t quite discern. But from the opening scene, I realised I had stumbled across something special.

When Vince returns to Cabramatta after two years in juvie, Sonny can’t help but fantasise the numerous ways he could re-enter her life. An intoxicated grandmother and a hidden porn stash, however, was not quite the romantic reunion she envisioned. Set in a troubled suburb in south-west Sydney, The Coconut Children is an emotional and gritty coming-of-age story centred around two teens and their immigrant families.

Pham does a wonderful job of capturing the unique inner conflicts of each of her characters. Her use of language not only balances the protagonists’ remaining innocence and the story’s darker themes with beautiful (though sometimes wordy) prose, but her inclusion of Vietnamese phrases was a unique touch I especially loved. By focusing on the idea of ‘language’ and the struggles it poses to these characters, Pham illustrates the intricate prejudices that many individuals find themselves confined by. The interwoven Vietnamese provided a brief glimpse into the culture and evoked the sensation of the young protagonists bordering two uncertain identities defined by the language they chose to speak. While unknown languages have the tendency to disrupt the flow, the author did well by integrating the words in such a way that their meaning was easy to infer, without the feeling of being ostracised from the text. (However if you’re like me and still want complete clarity, I’d suggest keeping google translate on hand.)

Although it had a slow start, and hormonal protagonists are usually a hit-or-miss for me, I still found myself engaged by the vulnerable and fierce emotions that propelled the characters forward.  Sonny and Vince were compelling, clumsy, and plagued by the uncertainty that comes with youth. While typical of the genre, the author uses this fact as a key entry point to delve into more difficult themes such as intergenerational trauma and the struggles of living as a Vietnamese-Australian. Besides your ‘boy meets girl then high school drama ensues’, the emphasis on cultural ties and familial expectations were intriguingly refreshing to read.

The representation of family played a large role in why I liked this book so much. The family dynamics were well constructed and made for a great central conflict for both Sonny and Vince. Their familial relationships were realistically loving yet volatile, that even I couldn’t help but feel the same sense of anxiety and anticipation the protagonists did. I wanted to dislike the parents (for the most part), yet there was something so innately vulnerable about them that I couldn’t help but sympathise with their situations, especially when introduced to their points of view. These POVs were heart-breaking, gritty and honest, and provided a lot of substance to round out certain characters and give context to the experiences that led them to Australia. There were times when I felt this wasn’t always effective. On a number of occasions I was left mildly confused as I was pulled out of the main tension, only to delve into the lives of characters that didn’t impact the story a great deal. Because of this, there were a lot of insightful and beautifully written scenes with core themes that felt somewhat disconnected.

For her debut novel, Vivian Pham has demonstrated the huge amounts of potential she has as a new voice in the Australian writing community. The Coconut Children is a moving and thought-provoking read that explores the struggles of growing up different.

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