Australian novelist Wood returns to the world of her previous novels Wildlife (2014) and Six Impossible Things (2015) in this appealing companion novel that features some of the same characters in supporting roles.
The year eleven students of toney Crowthorpe Academy are now back in Melbourne and embarking on their International Baccalaureate. The focus this time is on first generation Vietnamese Australian scholarship student Vân Uoc. For two years, Vân Uoc has been a quiet studious presence that few others have noticed, and she has been nursing a hopeless crush on popular blond-haired Billy Gardiner. But when she makes a wish that he would find her fascinating, it appears that there’s some magic going on, because he apparently suddenly does. Vân Uoc is tortured by the thought that either it’s a joke or a wish-induced interest that’s going to come to an abrupt and/or humiliating end.
As with Wild Life, the novel is driven by the finely drawn characters, this time with maybe just a hint of magic. The author thoroughly explores the lives of Vân Uoc’s “hard-working, first generation, barely-English-speaking” immigrant parents, and through Vân Uoc’s writing rants about poverty and prejudice shows her passionate feeling about the cultural divide she finds herself on the wrong side of. Vân Uoc herself is a quietly compelling character who has driven herself to this prestigious scholarship, while at the same time supporting the homework club that made such a difference for her, and using Jane Eyre as a role model of quiet strength and independence. Her friendship with neighbor Jess, who has a similar family background, shows the ease and comfortable happiness she feels when in her element.
The characterization of the other students is a mixed bag. The mean girls from Wild Life, particularly Holly “the perfectly formed love child of Smirk and Snarl”, never rise much above being just mean, and they are the downside of Billy’s interest, because it brings Vân Uoc to their attention. Vân Uoc’s friends, Lou and Sibylla, come with their own backstories from the previous novels, but readers without that knowledge may find them pretty thin. Billy himself is an interesting creation: is he a careless and clueless affluent kid, or is he a sensitive and observant love interest? The answer to that helps define this novel as a slice of an ongoing community’s life – he is both.
While I found this novel a little less shaped than Wildlife, which had the plot device of a semester at an outdoor education facility to give it structure, I enjoyed being with these characters and their developing selves and relationships.
Is it ok for Ms Wood, apparently white, to write from the perspective of a Vietnamese Australian? The review copy has no notes as to any research she did, but I found this interview in which she talks about working at a homework center similar to the one Vân Uoc volunteers in. This feels like a sympathetic and respectful portrayal, and is cuttingly realistic on the situation of a student from an economically challenged background struggling in such an affluent community.
For American teens, this is an engaging perspective of an outsider trying to fit in while remaining true to herself and her culture.
Thanks to Poppy and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.