I picked up this YA novel as it kept popping up in reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge, and my mum read it & enjoyed it, and we usually like the same things. I wasn’t disappointed – Cloudwish was a lovely post-Christmas couch read.
Vân Uớc, whose name means ‘Cloudwish’, is an Australian-born Vietnamese scholarship student at a private school. She has a gigantic crush on the most popular and attractive boy in her year and, like all shy and insecure girls, she thinks her chances of attracting him are dismal, until Billy inexplicably begins to pay attention to her.
I loved this novel for its sweetness. I guess most girls’ first crush is emblazoned in their memory, & who knows how many of them worked out – it was nice that this one did. It reminded me of the film Get Real about a romance between a nerdy boy and the most popular fellow at school, and then I wondered how many romances there are about popular girls and less socially adept boys? I haven’t come across any, though I sure would like to.
The novel blends poverty and privilege in a believable, illuminating way. Van’s council housing apartment is described in detail, with the ‘stained concrete floor’ on the way to the lift, the ‘low ceiling and exposed pipes of the hallway’. It’s also contrasted with the lusciousness of Billy’s expansive house with its coterie of staff, and reminded me of Alice Pung’s excellent essay for AWW on race and class.
The weight of parental expectation is also explored. Billy is cramped by his father’s assumption that he’ll become a brilliant rower and study overseas, and his mother’s desire for a girlfriend of the right social éclat. Van is weighed down by the guilt of her parents’ experiences as boat people and their belief that she ought to become a doctor, when she really wants to be an artist.
I enjoyed Van’s skillful negotiation of her relationship with her parents, for whom she is spokesperson as her mother only speaks ‘survival English’, so as to snatchsome freedom with Billy. I also liked watching her confidence grow through her relationship with Billy. Initially a quiet girl who doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, with Billy’s attentions Van becomes outspoken, much like her role model Jane Eyre. People who dismiss romance as frippery also overlook how it can create valuable emotions: security, confidence, and a willingness to change.
Some of the work seemed staged: the creative writing exercise in which Van expresses her fantasy that Billy would pay attention to her, and Billy’s sudden interest in Van. It wasn’t until Billy became three-dimensional, revealed as a boy who was as cramped by his parents’ expectations as Van was by hers, that I began to believe in his attraction Van. A big part of me was also sceptical that a seventeen year old boy could be so romantically-minded and thoughtful, but then I stopped being critical and gave myself up for the ride.
And having said that, there are plenty of other beautiful details throughout: a grove of scented orange trees, the ‘bright-beaten pieces of silver [coins], half buried in the blue-black asphalt’, and the kindness of a community that looks out for and takes care of its young people. What a lovely, rewarding book.
This is my sixth review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.