The Surprising Power of a Good Dumpling was one of my favourite books of 2019.
It’s a Young Adult contemporary about Anna Chiu, a Chinese-Australian girl growing up in Ashfield, Sydney. She’s in Year 11 at school and trying to cope with average marks, her snarky scholarship-winning sister, Lily, and her five year old brother.
Her father is absent due to working hard at the family’s old-school Chinese restaurant in Gosford, about an hour and a half away. It turns out much of his so-called “work” is simply avoiding dealing with his wife at home. Anna’s mother is bed-bound at the start of the novel, and Anna is left to do everything around the house.
Mania & paranoia
So it starts off a bit like Melina Marchetta’s Saving Francesca, but it’s soon obvious that Mrs Chiu is more trouble when she actually gets out of bed. Her behaviour involves staying up to all hours banging pots and pans, and bursting into the sisters’ room in the middle of the night to hurl objects around and make accusations. She is paranoid about people talking about her at school. It all culminates in a major psychotic episode, for which she is hospitalised.
The Chiu family travel a journey of ignorance and denial to early acceptance about their mother’s mental illness. Lily uses her academic skills to try to order her mother’s symptoms. While a diagnosis is not formally stated, it sounds as if Mrs Chiu has bipolar or schizoaffective disorder.
Despite the heavy subject matter, you really relate to Anna and feel the emotional force of the strain she is living under. There’s also a nuanced romantic sub-plot with an Anglo-Australian boy called Rory who is battling his own psychiatric demons. Within the context of this supportive relationship, Anna and Rory have off-page sex. Just a warning for younger readers!
The portrayal of life as a Chinese-Australian was excellent and avoided cliches. The different cliques of skinny Asian girls and the not-so-subtle bullying around wealth and social prestige rang true.
I liked this book because I related to it on a personal level.
My only problem is that Wai Chim has dealt with the subject matter of dealing with parental mental illness so well there might not be room for the novel I’m working on!
A Novel Prescription for:
Teen carers of parents with complex mental illness (bipolar, schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder) & anyone else keen to understand the issues around this.
Family, Chinese-Australian, identity, coming of age, mental illness, psychiatric care, suicide, friendship, siblings
***GIVEAWAY: I have a spare copy of this book, so if you’d like to win it, please tell me your favourite dumpling (from any part of the world!) in the comments below by Chinese New Year 25 Jan 2020, midnight AEDT.
Eligible entries will be collated and a winner chosen via a random generator, with winner contacted by me for postage details. Australian entries only due to postage costs. Extra entries available via following directions on the relevant post of my social media accounts: Twitter, Facebook & Instagram.