Wishes aren’t real. Are they?
Vân Uoc knows the score. She’s a scholarship kid in an exclusive school where most of the other kids were born with silver spoons in their mouths. She’s under no illusion about fitting into the designer-clothes-and-huge-house set, but it hasn’t prevented her crushing on A-lister and rowing star Billy Gardiner.
When a creative writing teacher hands around a box of items as prompts, Vân Uoc picks out a little glass tube with the word ‘wish’ on a slip of paper inside. Her wish? For Billy Gardiner to prefer her to everyone else. Afterwards she can’t find the glass tube, and Billy takes notice of her for the first time. Coincidence – isn’t it?
Though Cloudwish begins whimsically, the struggles Vân Uoc experiences between home and school feel very real. Being the only daughter of Vietnamese refugees, she feels the full weight of her parents’ expectations and the responsibility of being worthy of all the terrors they suffered and sacrifices they made so she could have a better life. Her day-to-day world is one of restriction and enforced study in their housing commission flat, carving out her small freedoms by bending the truth in translation to her barely-English-speaking parents and rationalising her dishonesty.
She doesn’t want anyone at school to know any of that, of course. She’s always tried to fly under the rader; life is easier if she’s invisible. With Billy’s sudden attention comes an unwelcome spotlight, and a few girls in particular aren’t too happy to see Billy’s affection straying outside home turf.
Billy really seems to like her, though, just for herself. She doesn’t believe wishes are real, but how else could this have happened? And can she live with that, if he hasn’t really chosen it?
Cloudwish is the story of a girl caught in the tension between two cultures. Fiona Wood immerses us in Vân Uoc’s world and we can’t help but feel the pressure from her parents and the otherness she experiences at school. The book begins with a quote from Alice Walker at Sydney Writers’ Festival:
I recognised myself in Jane Eyre. It amazed me how many white people can’t read themselves in black characters. I didn’t feel any separation between me and Jane. We were tight.
I love this quote and find it puzzling at the same time. The magical thing about stories is that they enable us to become other people, to understand who they are from the inside, to ‘look out through other eyes’ as Neil Gaiman has said. A good book is a leveller, making us all see from the same perspective, and I find it incredibly sad that some people have a racial barrier stopping that process.
The quote is perfect, though, because Jane Eyre is Vân Uoc’s hero and muse. “What would Jane do?” is a refrain throughout the story, and lovers of Charlotte Bronte’s classic will love the way Wood weaves snippets into Cloudwish.
While Vân Uoc seeks to be as brave as Jane, she suffers from the insecurities endemic in young women – or women in general – and many girls will identify with her doubts when the most popular boy at school pursues her. Is it a set-up? A joke? If not, it must be the wish.
Though most of the novel is written in third person, it perfectly fits the voice of its lead character. It’s a lovely touch that her name, Vân Uoc, means ‘cloudwish’ in Vietnamese.
I can’t help comparing Cloudwish with Looking for Alibrandi in the way it presents the life of a second generation Australian living between cultures. Reading it doesn’t feel like an education, only a great story, but afterwards I realised I understood a lot more than I had before I read it.
That’s a great book.
* I received an e-copy of this book for review through Netgalley
Fiona Wood’s website