Books featuring a mother with a mental illness

Book Review: The Coconut Children

Author: Vivian Pham
Publisher: Vintage Books (2020)
Genre: Historical fiction

Content warning: mentions of alcoholism, overdose

Life in a troubled neighbourhood demands too much too young. But Sonny wouldn’t really know. Watching the world from her bedroom window, she exists only in second-hand romance novels and falls for any fast-food employee who happens to spare her a glance.

Everything changes with the return of Vince, a boy who became legend after he was hauled away in handcuffs at fourteen. Sonny and Vince used to be childhood friends. But with all that happened in-between, childhood seems so long ago. It will take two years of juvie, an inebriated grandmother and a porn stash for them to meet again.

white background, Vivian Pham written in black text along the bottom. Pink swirls in the centre of the image.
Image source
Image description: white background, Vivian Pham written in black text along the bottom. Pink swirls in the centre of the image.

I heard about Coconut Children on the Sydney Writer’s Festival Podcast, and I’ve been telling everyone I know to read it since! I finished reading it a couple of days ago and am contemplating a reread before I return it to the library! It explored the power of family, mental illness and young love with breathtaking grace.

Although the novel was about Sonny and Vince, it was Sonny’s relationship with her family that caught my attention first. She was fiercely protective of her brother (Oscar) and her father, of whom she thought: “with the passing of each day he needed her protection more and more.” On the other hand, she did her best to keep her mother happy. Sonny’s mother was referred to as ‘crazy’ but didn’t have a specific diagnosis. Despite her mother’s mercurial moods, Sonny told Vince: ”…I love her. But she’s never made it easy for me.” Sonny didn’t speak to anyone outside of her home about their situation. Similarly, when Vince spoke to Oscar near the end of the novel, it was “the first time anyone at school had asked him about home.” This experience would likely resonate with readers with lives like Oscar’s, as these young people far too often aren’t asked about their home lives. Both Sonny and Oscar were aware of the importance of monitoring their mother’s moods, to the point where Oscar was worried about going on camp, feeling “guilty for leaving them to deal with his mother on their own.” Theirs wasn’t the only family in the neighbourhood to experience mental illness. Vince’s father was a violent alcoholic, and the father of Vince’s friend Alex overdosed on heroin.

Family was equally important to Vince, especially his younger sister, Emma. The scene where Vince met Emma for the first time contained some of the finest prose in the novel. For instance, when he heard her name, “Vince had never before thought a sound could be so healing…two syllables could hold all the secret knowledge of the stars.” Vince, like Sonny, became a devoted older sibling. From siblings to Shakespeare, Vince and Sonny were able to confide in one another as they could with no one else, reinforcing the strength of their connection and their shared childhood experiences.

I loved that Sonny and Vince spoke to their families in Vietnamese, and some of those Vietnamese phrases weren’t translated into English. It felt like a powerful reminder that while I experienced a lack of understanding for a few seconds, Vietnamese people who arrived in Australia with little English experienced it constantly.  Additionally, the dual point of view was an excellent choice as we were able to understand how Sonny and Vince saw themselves and each other. I also liked that there was some disability representation as Oscar had “brittle bones” and Sonny checked each morning whether he’d broken any bones in his sleep.

My favourite line was nearly impossible to narrow down and honestly I’ll probably change my mind again once I’ve published this review, but at the time of writing, it’s:

“Sometimes, having hope is as simple as letting yourself forget who you’ve been.”

I can’t overstate how much I loved this novel, and I’m ready to devour whatever Vivian Pham publishes next!

You can buy a copy of Coconut Children from Readings independent bookstore.

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