The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham
‘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.’
Cabramatta, 1998. Vincent Tran has returned after two years in juvie, and his childhood friend Sonny Vuong looks on from a distance at this boy she once knew so intimately, now an intriguing stranger. Her world is books and daydreams; his is drugs and violence. They are unexpectedly drawn back together by a series of strange events – a drunk grandma, a secret porn stash – and find that, at age sixteen, the future is full of possibilities that stretch beyond the confines of their poverty-stricken pocket of western Sydney.
This gentle yet raw debut novel made my heart ache. The tiny details about these Vietnamese-Australian lives – fruit eaten with chili salt, green tiger balm as a cure-all for any injury – are sketched with such tenderness. Vince and Sonny’s relationship unfurls so delicately, capturing the longing and hesitation, urgent yet slow, of first love – Vivian Pham imbues her characters with the intoxicating uncertainty typical of the adolescence she herself is only just leaving.
Tougher topics are tackled in this novel, too, from intergenerational trauma to domestic violence. Pham expertly captures how class tension plays out in the streets and behind closed doors. She’s a writer of formidable skill – her words flow like poetry, building a vivid world that pulses with difficult, honest beauty.
With Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Joey Bui’s Lucky Ticket, we’ve been fortunate lately to hear from incredibly talented Vietnamese diaspora writers. The Coconut Children joins this list as a wise and moving depiction of the infinite possibility that exists most desperately in the hearts of teenagers searching for themselves in a world that demands to define them.