Can wishing make it so?
In order to understand how I feel about Cloudwish, Fiona Wood’s latest, you first have to understand that I am a hardcore Fiona Wood fan. I loved Wildlife and Six Impossible Things and interviewed her for xoJane when Wildlife came to the US. So when I saw people tantalising me with their ARCs, I whined on Twitter until The NOVL hooked me up, and I am not going to lie, I actually squealed with excitement when I opened the parcel.
Wood has a spare, clear, crisp writing style — she’s here to tell a story, she’s not going to ornament it heavily, but when you peer around the edges, you see something much deeper going on. Her style is particularly well suited to the theme and tone of this book, because Vân Uoc’s entire life is about appreciating the unseen and finding the unfound. She likes to find ordinary things and turn them into something extraordinary by seeing them in new light — she references the infamous plastic bag scene in American Beauty, but that sense of finding something raw and strange that people ignore and turning it into art is her passion.
Cloudwish hooks into the larger world she’s been building with her earlier novels, but it takes us in a new direction, into the lives of less privileged communities in Melbourne. As the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, Vân Uoc has a lot of expectations riding on her shoulders, and she’s struggling to reconcile what she wants with what her parents want her to be. There’s a danger here of seeing an Asian character live out this very familiar stereotype, and it’s thin ice, but Wood is also getting at some important issues here that are hard to talk about otherwise.
Vân Uoc understands the immigrant experience, though her parents have been closelipped about the circumstances in which they left Vietnam. She understands why immigrants would risk everything to come to Australia, a nation which has a draconian and horrific immigration policy right now, incarcerating people, including unaccompanied minors, on remote islands rather than admitting them into its society when they need help. Rape and assault are rife in camps like Nauru, and yet people keep coming, because the alternative is even worse. They keep coming even though they can’t access health care, even though the camps provide inadequate food, even though the conditions are horrific.
As a character connected with that experience, she becomes a sharp, powerful storyteller, and she also gets at the class and social tensions that some second generation immigrants experience as well. It’s not just that she’s Vietnamese and subject to racism, but that she’s also lower class, living in subsidized housing, with parents who do piecework sewing and work on the floor of a slaughterhouse. And that these things tie inextricably with her family history. She’s not like her wealthy cohort at the school where she’s getting a scholarship: She has more on the line, and has a depth of experience that they don’t in their social bubble.
As Vân Uoc struggles to fit in racially and socially, she’s also entangled in first love, or something else darker and weirder — did she make a boy fall in love with her just by wishing it? Is their love real or fake? Is she about to lose her friends over her strange connection to a boy who’s really rather a prat, or is he changing and growing? Is there more to him than his superficial behaviour in school would suggest?
I’m having a lot of fun with Cloudwish, and I’m delighted to be adding it to my slowly growing Fiona Wood shelf.