Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

Note: this is somewhat spoilery. And my keyboard didn’t have quite the right diacritics so apologies for mangling Vân Uóc’s beautiful name.

“If you survived then you were all right; no – lucky. What problems? You’re alive! She wanted more than survival. She wanted beauty; she wanted love; she wanted abundance.”

When abundance falls in your lap in the form of “the heart of one very hot dickhead,” is it true love or something else entirely?

Now I know how to captivate a man – magic! Except there’s always a price to pay where magic is concerned. In this case, captivated Billy is the most moronic boy in school, also the most annoying love interest in any book I’ve ever read. While Vân Uóc was giving herself a mental smack on the head, Billy could have done with one too, only not mental.

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood is a clever retelling of Jane Eyre, all the while riffing on Vân Uóc’s favourite book. She lives by the mantra,

“What would Jane do?”

Vân Uóc is first generation Vietnamese Australian and her parents have high hopes for their academically inclined only child. They want her to study medicine and escape the poverty of menial jobs and housing commission flats. Vân Uóc is well on her way with a scholarship to prestigious Crowthorne Grammar, but she’s also a talented artist and secretly plans to go to Art School. While she fantasizes about her crush Billy Gardiner, she doesn’t have any time for a boyfriend. A strange occurrence in English class brings her to Billy’s notice.

“How disconcerting it was to have an idle fantasy turn into real life attraction.”

Vân Uóc and her friends talk about sex, swear, lie to parents, act like everyday teenagers. When Vân Uóc tells her mother, yes there will be prayers at the student gathering (translation: drunken party) her justification for the lie is pure gold.

“Some people would be praying to hook up with other people; at some stage of the night someone else would certainly be praying that they didn’t vomit in a friend’s parent’s car on the way home…This could be the start of a whole new level of parental manipulation.”

Occasionally the third person narration is old fashioned, reminiscent of Jane Eyre. Vân Uóc can reel off passages from Jane Eyre as the situation warrants (there’s a sound explanation for knowing these quotes) but her life also mirrors Jane’s, with a modern twist.

At first Vân Uóc is confused and uncertain about Billy’s strange infatuation. Then she decides to make the most of this bizarro world, it can’t hurt, right?

“What would the limitations on her new-found charm be? Was there an expiry date? She couldn’t even revisit how the hell was this happening? It was too much to get her head around. It did not bear scrutiny.”

Billy is the perfect Rochester doppelgänger: self-assured, narcissistic, wealthy to the point of disbelief. His family has a housekeeper!? sorry house manager.

“His vanity was so deeply assured it didn’t need constant reinforcement.”

There is also that nod to the wee folk of the supernatural – the “magic” of Billy’s inexplicable attraction.

“Within Jane Eyre’s framework of realism – of social commentary on class, on charity schools, on imperious rich relations, on gender equality and the restricted opportunity for women, on love and morality…there was also some mad magic.”

Or unrealistic expectations. I love Jane Eyre. I’ve been known to read it over and over when depressed, because it represents things I will never have. Much like the things Charlotte Brontë and her sisters never had, and her brother squandered.

Like Billy, Rochester is an arrogant prat, he treats Jane, Blanche and Bertha appallingly and deserves nothing. As much as I love her story, I always had issues with Jane falling for Rochester, similar to Tess Derbyfield and Angel Clare, only Angel contributed to Tess’s death with his hypocritical “love.” What am I saying, half the YA with a love interest has a brooding bad boy with a heart of gold. At least in Wildlife he gets kicked to the curb.

“Who had decided that some should have so little and others so much?”

Themes of poverty vs affluence and the difficulties refugees face interweave with the light hearted love story. While Billy complains about being grounded, Vân Uóc

“thought about the millions of dispossessed people jammed into refugee camps all over the world.”

Vân Uóc’s parents and aunt were refugees from Vietnam in 1980. Page 41 is a clever representation of the response to trauma. It reminded me of M.T. Anderson’s spilt ink when the memories got too much for Octavian Nothing. Her mother’s refusal to talk about the past leads to recurrent PTSD around the anniversary of their hazardous boat journey and arrival in Australia.

Vân Uóc had eventually stitched together some possibilities… She only unfolded that ugly little garment – still full of missing stitches – in private, trying to understand exactly what her parents might have survived.

After my dislike of medication working too fast in The Pause, I was pleased Cloudwish had realistic representations of patient frustration with meds taking weeks to kick in. I know well the temptation to give up cos the pills “don’t do anything” and annoyance at the wait every time dosage or antidepressant type is changed. Vân Uóc’s mother was a welcome read after my dislike of Nella’s mum’s representation in For the Forest of a Bird.

I’m rarely content with every aspect of a book, and despite my misgivings Cloudwish by Fiona Wood belongs firmly on the Shortlist for CBCA Book of The Year for Older Readers and is my pick for the winner. (Having read 4/6th of the shortlist I’m woefully unqualified to call this, but that never stops me.)

Cloudwish by Fiona Wood