Vivian Pham
The Coconut Children

Set in 1990s Cabramatta, The Coconut Children opens with charismatic 16-year-old Vince Tran celebrating his release from two years in juvenile detention. His laughter, “thundering through the entire neighbourhood”, drips with stolen homegrown mango as his friends push him in a shopping trolley. The procession passes his childhood friend Sonny Vuong, who dreams of being whisked away from her emotionally unpredictable mother. Instead, the dutiful Sonny finds solace in bodice-rippers, schoolyard gossip with her best friend and conversations with her good-natured father and sassy grandmother.

“Sometimes, having hope is as simple as letting yourself forget who you’ve been,” Vince muses when he meets his baby sister for the first time. All the same, the past simmers close to the surface. The novel sensitively depicts the impacts of drug use, domestic violence and sexual trauma – the aftershocks of surviving the Vietnam/American War. “All humans are tortured by time,” Sonny’s elderly bà ngoi reflects, as memories of Sonny’s father’s harrowing boat journey mingle with old newspaper headlines. Pham conveys just enough detail to bear witness; the brutality surrounding and within these families is not spectacle but a cold fact of life. Sonny and Vince are products of their parents, carrying their scars and stories, but the future is theirs to shape.

The two friends reunite midway through the novel, giving readers time to appreciate them as individuals. The Coconut Children rewards patient readers, building tension while lingering over backyards ripe with symbolism. Lush and lyrical, irreverent yet poignant, Pham’s prose crackles with energy, while Vietnamese dialogue adds to the novel’s intimacy. When the narrative shifts to the parents’ youth, it slips into a second-person voice, giving the text a haunting quality as past, present and future crash like waves upon a long-awaited shore. Pham portrays family interdependencies, particularly complex parent–child relationships, with heartbreaking precision. A mother’s love is a numb hand on her errant son’s cheek, while grief rumbles from deep in the belly during a drunken karaoke session with the boys. The Coconut Children is an effervescent debut filled with vivid characters, where a single gesture, a single look, encapsulates a world.

Shu-Ling Chua

Vintage, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 7, 2020 as "Vivian Pham, The Coconut Children".

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Reviewer: Shu-Ling Chua