Debut novelist Vivian Pham waves her magic wand over the Western Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, with stunning results.
Sixteen-year-old Vincent Tran is just out of juvenile detention, having finished a two-year stint. Fit, muscled and tattooed, he exudes a roguish glamour. On his return to Cabramatta, he is pushed by friends along the street in a Woolworths trolley, a king on his royal litter. Everyone stares in wonder: what mayhem will he unleash next? Looking on from her bedroom window is Sonny Vuong. She, too, is mesmerised by Vincent. At last, she thinks, Cabramatta can wake from its long slumber. With Vincent back, the suburb is alive again.
Sonny wonders what the return of Vince will mean for her. The two have a previous history. They are neighbours and played together as children. But the two year stint in detention has meant they have grown somewhat apart. Much has happened in between. Can they now re-discover each other and build a new friendship?
First time author Vivian Pham started writing The Coconut Children as part of a writer's workshop when she was sixteen. The author's youth apart, this is quite an astonishing debut. Set in the southwestern Sydney suburb of Cabramatta, Pham turns struggling suburbia, with its dingy shopping plazas, seedy bottleshops and down-at-heel op-shops into a glittering Emerald City. In one passage she writes that the streets are bathed in the “ceremonial light of summertime.” The residents of Cabramatta may be on struggle street, haunted by the tragic dislocations of a refugee past, but they are also a charmed people, radiating mystery and magic. Pham makes her characters soar above their poor circumstances.
Vivian Pham's style is often hypnotic and spellbinding, using metaphors and imagery of startling originality. Her descriptions are also delightfully trippy, consistently surprising the reader with their spontaneous invention. It's the sort of inspired writing that can't be learnt; one must have a true vision.
If that makes The Coconut Children sound densely poetic and ethereal, it should be noted that there is a strong current of humour that runs through the book. Pham has a keen sense of irony, evident on almost every page. It's actually a very funny book, reminiscent of the sly wit of writers like Carson McCullers and Jean Genet.
An impressive debut and someone to definitely watch in the future.
The Coconut Children, by Vivian Pham. Published by Vintage. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books