Young adult novel about family, culture and mental health
Content warning: mental illness
I mentioned in an earlier post that I went a little overboard in the #AuthorsforFireys Twitter auctions, but there was absolutely no way I was going to let this one pass me by. The author was offering a copy of her book to the top 30 bidders, and each book would have the pages HAND PAINTED. Obviously I had to bid. In fact, I took the bidding so seriously that I kept a list of how many bids there were and for what amount so I could make sure that I didn’t miss out.
“The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling” by Wai Chim is a young adult novel about Anna, an ordinary teenager trying to study, keep on top of her chores and try not to get on the wrong side of the popular girls at school. Except Anna’s family isn’t quite as ordinary. Anna’s mum spends all day in bed, and her dad never comes home from work at his Chinese restaurant an hour north of Sydney. She has to look after her younger siblings Lily and Michael, interpret for her parents who moved to Australia from Hong Kong, and try to convince her school’s careers counsellor that she’s taking her future seriously. Up until this point, Anna had been able to keep everything afloat. However, when her mum suddenly becomes much more unwell, it becomes clear that things can’t continue the way they have been. Plus, there’s a boy.
This is an extremely refreshing take on the young adult genre. Chim has a great sense of place, and I loved the mood of Anna travelling between her home in Ashfield and her father’s restaurant in Gosford – sometimes by train, sometimes by car. I also loved the scenes in the restaurant itself, and watching Anna develop confidence and friendships while working in the kitchen in a way that she struggle to at school. Also it’s very hard not to read this book without being hungry the entire time, and I would highly recommend having something delicious to snack on while reading to complete the experience.
Chim covers a lot of topics in this book: friendship, transitioning to adulthood, young romance, culture, family dynamics and in particular mental health. While I’ve read quite a lot of Chinese literature over the past few years, but I don’t think I’ve read any books that use Cantonese before, in particular the Jyutping romanisation system, which I was really interested to learn about. I thought that the way Chim handled Anna’s mother’s illness was very sensitively done, and found a good balance between impact mental illness can have on families and the distress it can cause the individual who is unwell. Rory was a great romantic lead who was able to provide support and advice to Anna based on his own lived experience. He was also just an absolute sweetheart.
I felt that Chim did a really good job of accurately portraying mental illness, especially around inpatient care, the chronic nature of many mental health conditions and the fact that there often isn’t an instant, magical cure. However, I did feel that the chapters towards the end of the book that explore what a new normal looks like for the Chiu family, while very important and emotionally charged, didn’t have the same pacing and tension as earlier in the book.
Nevertheless, I think this is a great example of modern Australian YA. I think that it’s incredibly relevant and tackles issues that a lot of teens, regardless of their background, will get something out of.