Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2016

The Wave (2015), by Hoa Pham

The Wave

The Wave is a terrific book, beautifully written and thought-provoking.

Australian born of Vietnamese descent, Hoa Pham writes perceptively about the psychological impact of life outside societal norms.  In The Wave, her sixth novel, her characters are lesbian lovers from Japan and Vietnam,  free to express their love in the less constricting Australian environment, yet feeling alienated from it because they do not belong.  At the same time they are hidebound by compelling Asian traditions which derail their already fragile relationship.

The psychological pressure on these young women engulfs them in a wave of tragedy both literal and metaphorical.  They meet as international students while studying at an Australian university where Midori, from Fukushima, Japan, finds herself walled in by indifference.

Only other international students wished to talk to her, especially Japanese ones.  The Australians, impatient with her barely adequate English, didn’t care.  (p. 14)

(I always think this is so sad.  When you’re at uni, you’re so excited by new ideas and the stimulating intellectual milieu, you can’t wait to get into the caf and talk about it. But the international students – while obviously competent with written English or they wouldn’t be there – are so often struggling with oral English that they can’t join the discussions.  And because Australian students from expensive private schools dominate the social mix at sandstone universities,  international students too often encounter those who don’t have experience with listening in a structured school situation to the contributions of learners with limited English.  Students from an elite background often haven’t had the opportunity to learn that international students are just as excited as they are, that they may be as clever if not more clever than they are; and that they have valuable ideas to contribute too.  Sometimes  stereotypical assumptions about cultural reticence discourage efforts to interact as well, and teaching staff may not be skilled in managing diversity in tute groups and seminars.  This language barrier is exacerbated if the international students interpret impatience as racism and withdraw to their own language group.)

Âu Cô is from North Vietnam and finds herself subjected also to hostility from students of South Vietnamese heritage.  This is an unfortunate phenomenon.  We were told about this hostility within Vietnam by our guide when we were in Vietnam in 2007;  and as an alumni mentor through the University of Melbourne’s Welcome to Melbourne Program, I learned from a student from Hanoi about how it manifests itself here in Melbourne.  The Australian-born descendants of South Vietnamese refugees who came to Australia after the Fall of Saigon in 1975 can inflict a double rejection on the hapless student already having difficulty making friends in the Australian community.   This can be compounded by well-meaning Aussies who show off the plethora of Vietnamese shops and restaurants, and in their naiveté expect the North Vietnamese visitor to feel comfortable in a familiar environment.  But not only is the cuisine entirely different between north and south, but placing an order spoken with an accent from North Vietnam can invite serious unpleasantness.  This racism is just as unacceptable as other kinds of racism, and I am pleased to see this author calling it out.

Tragedy strikes when the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami kills Midori’s parents.  At nineteen she becomes guardian to her little brother who is despatched to her for safety because of the nuclear meltdown.  His narration and hers show that she is not coping with her grief.

Âu Cô and Midori are united by social isolation, and find that the relaxed social mores of Australia that accept same-sex relationships are not shared by the other international students.  Midori can sense her parents’ disapproval from the photos in a shrine she has made in her home, and

she did not like the way some of the overseas Asian students looked at her, their eyes like marbles running down her chest. Her lover made her strong, strong enough to laugh in their faces.  But only when she was there.  (p. 28)

Âu Cô, on the other hand, finds that waves of cultural tradition are pulling her towards a compromise that inevitably sabotages the relationship.  Both Âu Cô and Dzung are pressured to marry by parents who want grandchildren – and in Âu Cô’s case, Australian citizenship as well.  Âu Cô deludes herself that she can have marriage to a man of whom she is only fond, and have Midori’s love as well.

The young women create a fantasy world of powerful dragons who fall in love, but it is not enough to sustain them when another tragedy strikes.  Melburnians will remember the tragic case of a Chinese student who cracked under pressure to succeed from his parents and shot and killed two students and wounded five others including his lecturer.  In the novella, this event from real life is a catalyst for Midori’s disintegration and the tragedy that follows.

Beautifully written in intense but spare fragments narrated by Âu Cô, Midori and the brother, this novella captures the heartbreak that overwhelms the lovers.

This book was also reviewed by Marilyn at Me, You and Books.

You can find out more about Hoa Pham at her website.

Author: Hoa Pham
Title: The Wave
Publisher: Spinifex Press, 2015, 91 pages
ISBN: 9781742199689
Review copy courtesy of Spinifex Press

Available from Fishpond: Wave
and direct from Spinifex Press where it is also available as an eBook.


  1. I read the Marilyn review as well. Sounds beautifully written but I’m not sure I can handle a romance that ends in heartbreak.


  2. I must admit I didn’t realise how isolated some international students in Australia can be. We are all so busy we often need to stand still and look around us. This book by Hoa Pham makes us do just that.


    • It was a revelation to me to be involved in the Welcome to Melbourne program, and when I’m not so preoccupied with my father, I’ll rejoin the program. I had thought that no young student would be very interested in a friendship with people our age, but I was wrong, and we are still Facebook friends seven years later. Students in this situation don’t want to share their worries with already anxious parents back home, and especially in the beginning, they find it easier to boost their confidence with oral English in a less competitive environment than the university. We were as proud as his own parents on his graduation day, and delighted to be stand-ins for them in the photos:)


  3. I love learning through books and it sounds like I would learn quite a bit from this novel.


    • I do too, and I think you will love this one:)


  4. I read this one last night, very sad but as you say beautifully written. I now worry about Âu Cô.


  5. That’s the strength of the characterisation, I think. Even though I have nothing in common with Âu Cô I found myself identifying with her and sharing her pain.


  6. This sounds beautiful. I hope I can find a copy.


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